The French scientist Pascal Cotte has spent more than a decade shining strong lights on the “Mona Lisa” and measuring the reflections in order to map the layers of paint beneath its surface. This week, he rocked the art world by announcing that his pioneering Layer Amplification Method (LAM) has uncovered a second portrait underneath the famous painting. According to Cotte, this seated female figure, looking off to the side instead of straight ahead and unsmiling, is the “real” Mona Lisa, rather than Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant who is widely believed to have been Leonardo da Vinci’s model.

According to widely accepted historical wisdom, Leonardo Da Vinci painted his Renaissance masterwork “Mona Lisa” sometime between 1503 and 1517, while he worked in Florence and later in France. Beyond those vague details, the painting’s origins have been draped in mystery. Some believe Leonardo created more than one version of the painting, while theories as to the painting’s inspiration ranged from Princess Isabella of Naples to an unnamed courtesan, the artist’s mother or his male assistant (and possible lover), Gian Giacomo Caprotti, better known as Salaí.

Pascal Cotte digital reproduction of the painting he believes is beneath the "Mona Lisa." (Credit:  Brinkworth Films)
Pascal Cotte digital reproduction of the painting he believes is beneath the “Mona Lisa.” (Credit: Brinkworth Films)

Since 1550, when the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari identified the painting’s subject as Lisa del Giocondo, also known as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, she has been the leading contender for the “Mona Lisa” crown. (The Italian name for the painting is “La Gioconda.”) According to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where the painting is housed, Gherardini’s husband could have commissioned the painting to commemorate the birth of the couple’s second son in 1502.

In 2004, the Louvre gave French scientist Pascal Cotte, co-founder of Lumiere Technology in Paris, access to the “Mona Lisa” for the purposes of analysis and study. Using a technique called Layer Amplification Method (LAM), which he pioneered, Cotte projected a series of “intense” lights onto the painting using a camera to take measurements of the lights’ reflections. Cotte then used these measurements to reconstruct what was contained between the layers of paint. This is certainly not the first time that the world’s most famous painting has been subjected to such in-depth scrutiny. Just in recent years, the “Mona Lisa” has been examined using high-tech methods such as infrared inspections and multi-spectral scanning. Still, Cotte claims LAM can provide a deeper analysis than those techniques.

 Pascal Cotte. On the left is a digital reconstruction of what he claims to have found underneath the Mona Lisa. (Credit: Brinkworth Films)
Pascal Cotte. On the left is a digital reconstruction of what he claims to have found underneath the Mona Lisa. (Credit: Brinkworth Films)

At a press conference in Shanghai this week, Cotte announced his findings, which are currently causing serious buzz—and generating controversy—in the international art world. In addition to a second seated figure, which Cotte believes depicts the “real” Mona Lisa, his analysis uncovered the shadowy outline of yet another figure (with a larger head and nose) and a Madonna-esque image with an etched pearl headdress. In a statement, Cotte boldly argued that his results “shatter many myths and alter our vision of Leonardo’s masterpiece forever. 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.”

The Louvre, for its part, has declined to comment, but Cotte’s claims have already drawn fire from many experts. Martin Kemp, a former art history professor at the University of Oxford, praised Cotte’s “ingenious” techniques but told CNN that his idea of another portrait hiding under the existing one is “untenable” and that he remains convinced that the Mona Lisa is Lisa del Giocondo. According to Kemp: “There are considerable changes during the course of the making of the portrait–as is the case with most of Leonardo’s paintings. I prefer to see a fluid evolution from a relatively straightforward portrait of a Florentine women into a philosophical and poetic picture that has a universal dimension.”

Light technology used on the famous painting. (Credit:  Brinkworth Films)
Light technology used on the famous painting. (Credit: Brinkworth Films)

Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art historian whose documentary “The Secrets of the Mona Lisa” features Cotte’s research, is more of a believer. On the heels of Cotte’s announcement this week, he told BBC News that “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.”