After a decade of studying the most famous painting in the world, French scientist Pascal Cotte has declared that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is hiding a portrait of another woman beneath its iconic smile. But while Cotte’s findings are surprising, many art historians are staying skeptical.
Cotte has spent the last 10 years analyzing the Mona Lisa using a technique he pioneered called Layer Amplification Method (LAM). According to Cotte, the LAM allows him to reconstruct what happened between layers of paint by "projecting a series of intense lights" onto the painting and measuring the lights’ reflections, Roya Nikkhah reports for the BBC.
"We can now analyze exactly what is happening inside the layers of the paint and we can peel like an onion all the layers of the painting,” Cotte tells Nikkhah. “We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting."
Cotte has since reconstructed several layers underneath the painting that differ from the iconic portrait. According to Cotte, an earlier version of the Mona Lisa showed its subject looking off to the side instead of directly at the viewer, minus her famous smile. Cotte also reconstructed two more layers, which depicted da Vinci’s subject with a larger head, nose and hands and smaller lips than the final piece, George Dvorsky writes for Gizmodo.
"The results shatter many myths and alter our vision of Leonardo's masterpiece forever,” Cotte tells Nikkhah. “I was in front of the portrait and she is totally different to Mona Lisa today. This is not the same woman.”
However, not everyone’s convinced by Cotte’s theory. As the BBC’s Arts Editor Will Gompertz writes:
I’m skeptical. 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.
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.
Gompertz acknowledges that the Mona Lisa’s worldwide fame makes this a good story, but cautions jumping to conclusion. Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, also agrees, telling Nikkhah that while Cotte’s images might give insights into da Vinci’s creative process, there is no question that the portraits show the same woman.
Historians have debated for years about the identity of da Vinci’s intriguing subject. Most, however, believe that the Mona Lisa is Lisa Gherardini, who was the wife of a Florentine silk merchant, Lorena Muñoz-Alonso writes for ArtNet News.
"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,” Kemp tells Nikkhah. “I am absolutely convinced that the Mona Lisa is Lisa."