In what reads like the headline for a modern mystery novel, a researcher has found a hidden portrait under Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – or so he claims.
Pascal Cotte said he has spent over 10 years to study the painting with modern technology, scanning it with multispectral cameras and revealing what he claims to be another image underneath it, and reconstructed the image, as can be seen above.
However, reactions have been pretty skeptical. Will Gompertz, Arts Editor said that this wouldn’t be very shocking as it was (and still is) common for artists to make modifications to their paintings, but we should take this finding with a grain of salt:
“I’m sceptical. It’s perfectly common for an artist to overpaint an image as it is for a client who’s commissioned that artist to ask for changes. So it’s not surprising that there are those underpaintings on the Mona Lisa,” he told the BBC. “The data that the technology generates is open to interpretation, which needs to be analysed and corroborated by the academic and curatorial community, and not just an individual. I think the Louvre’s decision not to make a comment is telling. This is the world’s most famous painting which, like a celebrity, always makes for a good story. But in this case I think caution is required.”
Cotte was given access to the painting in 2004, and has since then pioneered a technique he calls Layer Amplification Method (LAM), which he used to reach his results. The technique projects lights of different wavelengths onto the painting and then analyses reflections – sort of like remote sensing is done at a much larger scale. This allows him to see “deeper into the painting,” below the visual surface.
“We can now analyse exactly what is happening inside the layers of the paint and we can peel like an onion all the layers of the painting. We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting.”
There are many beliefs and myths around Mona Lisa, regarding who she is and what she stands for; one of the theories was that she was Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant – hence the name. But Cotte claims he disproves that idea, which means that we would basically have to change its name.
“When I finished the reconstruction of Lisa Gherardini, I was in front of the portrait and she is totally different to Mona Lisa today. This is not the same woman.”
Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, who has made a BBC documentary about the Mona Lisa, believes this could be one of the biggest findings of the century in terms of art studies.
“I have no doubt that this is definitely one of the stories of the century. There will probably be some reluctance on the part of the authorities at the Louvre in changing the title of the painting because that’s what we’re talking about – it’s goodbye Mona Lisa, she is somebody else.”
But not everyone is convinced: Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford believes that this shows an evolution of the painting, rather than disprove that Mona Lisa is Lisa Gheradini.
“They [Cotte’s images] are ingenious in showing what Leonardo may have been thinking about. But the idea that there is that picture as it were hiding underneath the surface is untenable. “I do not think there are these discrete stages which represent different portraits. I see it as more or less a continuous process of evolution. I am absolutely convinced that the Mona Lisa is Lisa. “
Whichever version may be true, it’s remarkable that even after centuries of studies, we can find out new things about paintings and art – with the help of modern technology.