For centuries, human beings from all walks of life have spent countless hours wondering what lies behind Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. Is it superiority? Cunning? Boredom? Finally, after 500 years of wondering, French scientist Pascal Cotte thinks he knows what Mona Lisa has been hiding.
Spoiler: it's another smile.
In 2004, the Louvre granted Cotte access to Leonardo da Vinci's "La Gioconda," also known as The Mona Lisa, where he studied her tirelessly for over 10 years. He employed a technique called Layer Amplification Method (LAM) to analyze the historic work. More specifically, Cotte projected "a series of intense lights" onto the work, as he explained to the BBC, later using a camera to measure the lights' reflections and thus piece together what exists between the layers of paint.
"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 explained to the BBC. "We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting."
What Cotte found lying dormant beneath the famed portrait is -- drumroll, please -- another portrait! This hidden sitter looks off to the side, instead of straight ahead with that signature Mona Lisa penetrating gaze. And no, she doesn't boast that same cryptic grin. Cotte believes the woman in the hidden painting is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the Florentine silk merchant who is widely believed to have been the muse that inspired Mona Lisa.
According to Cotte's findings, the hidden painting depicts Gherardini, while the Mona Lisa we know today represents someone else entirely. "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," he said. Cotte also discovered two additional images within the painted layers of Mona Lisa's past -- a shadowy outline of a portrait and a woman in a pearl headdress.
Not surprisingly, Cotte's scientific conclusion has garnered its fair share of divided opinions. Most critics do not contest Cotte's means of analysis, but they take issue with his final interpretation of the evidence. For Cotte, every hidden image he uncovered represents a discreet and independent work of art. However, dissenters interpret the reconstructed images as the intermediary steps of a fluid painting process. In other words, Mona Lisa is still a portrait of the same Lisa Gherardini, just with deliberate aesthetic differentiations made along the way. Through their reasoning, yes, even Leonardo da Vinci made mistakes.
The Guardian's Jonathan Jones wrote an impassioned rebuttal to Cotte's claims, asserting that it was Leonardo's creative brilliance that led him from Lisa's portrait to Mona Lisa the artwork. "To imitate life, Leonardo betrayed his model," Jones writes. "Instead of simply showing a real woman called Lisa, it became a painting whose ethereal beauty and powerful presence is the sum of Leonardo’s understanding. And even more elusive ideas crept in. When Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa he showed that 'she' has a male component: that makes this charismatic image even more universal, an embodiment of the mystery of existence."
"Cotte has forgotten that Leonardo was a genius. Of course he did not do anything so banal as paint someone else on top of his portrait of a Florentine woman. What he did was so much more fascinating. He worked on this portrait until the face of a real person was transformed into a myth."
Was Mona Lisa the portrait of a real-life woman whose identity may forever remain a mystery? Was she a mythological vision conjured in the mind of one of history's greatest artists? One thing remains certain, this woman really is mysterious.
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