Opinion

In Light of the Newest One, a Brief History of Mona Lisa Theories

Cotte used his own technology to examine the painting (all images courtesy Brinkworth Films)
Cotte used his own technology to examine the painting (all images courtesy Brinkworth Films)

It seems the Mona Lisa will never fail to inspire research and lead to discoveries that, though questionable, will never fail to grab headlines and cause every Leonardo expert in the world to weigh in on the matter and inevitably butt heads with each other. In the latest of theories to divide the Leonardo da Vinci community, a French scientist has allegedly found a hidden portrait under the famous smiling sitter, as the BBC first reported. Pascal Cotte, an engineer and founder of Parisian startup Lumière Technology — which specializes in scanning artworks for digitization — claims that a wholly different woman, depicted sans mysterious smile, occupied the canvas first before receiving a whole new paint job. She is apparently also accompanied by “a shadowy outline of a portrait with a larger head and nose, bigger hands but smaller lips,” according to the BBC, as well as a “Madonna-style image with Leonardo’s etchings of a pearl headdress.”

Some believe that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)
Some believe that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

Cotte has dedicated the past decade to examining the painting, using his own technique, the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), which he claims allows for a deeper look into the work’s layers, compared to other widely used methods such as infrared analysis and multispectral scanning. In an essay outlining how the process works, Cotte describes that LAM’s examination of several images rather than a single one makes it “possible to visualize the entire structure and composition of the pictorial matter — at various layers or strata … The result is like an onion or vanilla slice, with all the superimposed layers unveiled one at a time.”

Although the Louvre granted Cotte access to the painting in 2004, it declined to provide comment on his supposed discoveries because Cotte “was not part of the scientific team” — most likely the museum’s gentle, PR department-approved way of saying it doesn’t buy into all of Cotte’s research. Art historian Martin Kemp — everyone’s go-to Leonardo connoisseur — has also voiced his skepticism. We’ll see if Cotte’s discovery will spur the museum to edit the painting’s plaque to reidentify the sable-haired sitter, but for now, it’s just another bullet point in the long list of (often dubious) speculations surrounding “La Gioconda.” Below, a sampling of some especially notable ones:

  • The “Two Monas” Theory: A number of scholars have claimed that a painting known as the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” is actually an earlier version of the Mona Lisa, rendered about a decade prior to the Louvre’s painting. In 2012, it emerged from the depths of a Swiss bank after 40 years before embarking on a controversial tour around Asia, hitting cities from Singapore to Hong Kong.
  • The Neighbor’s Wife Theory: Evidence has been building to support the widely accepted belief of many art historians that the sitter is Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who was Leonardo’s neighbor and would have commissioned the work.
  • The “Self-Portrait in Drag” Theory: This theory that Leonardo merely painted himself as a woman is perhaps one of the most well-known, and in 2010 Italian scientists proposed exhuming the artist’s remains to reconstruct his face and compare it with the one in the portrait.
  • The Cholesterol Level-Shaming Theory: In 2010, one doctor diagnosed Mona Lisa with high cholesterol levels, arguing that she had “clear signs of a build-up of fatty acids under the skin” in addition to a lipoma in her right eye.
  • The “Chinese Connection” Theory: This memorable one, courtesy of an Italian historian and novelist based in Hong Kong, argues that a Chinese landscape appears on the painting’s reverse and that the sitter has features that suggest her oriental background. Oh, and she was also apparently Leonardo’s mother and a Chinese slave.
  • The “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” Theory: Here’s another one from Cotte, who surveyed Mona Lisa’s face and claimed to have “definitive proof” that the portrait, today mostly brow- and lashless, originally did possess those features after his imaging techniques located a single brushstroke of a strand of hair.
  • The “More Depth, Please” Theory: In 2013, “experimental psychologists” in Germany claimed that the original Mona Lisa and the copy hanging in the Prado museum would form a three-dimensional stereoscopic image if brought together.
  • The “Alien Sighting” Theory: Earlier this year, Paranormal Crucible (your authoritative source on all things bizarre) spotted an “alien ‘high priest'” hidden in the canvas — after creating a mirror image first, of course; one UFOlogist from UFO Sightings Daily justified the extraterrestrial’s appearance with a highly compelling argument: that “the likelihood of Leonardo da Vinci being an alien or half-breed is very high.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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