Who Is Hiding Behind Mona Lisa?

A French scientist claims there is another woman depicted underneath Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Art historians and experts aren’t smiling.

Edgar Su / Reuters

There’s no rest for the world’s most famous painting. Songs, books, films, and pizza joints have all been named after the Mona Lisa while conspiracies eternally stir over her real identity, the meaning of her enigmatic smile, the position of her fingers, and even the absence of her eyebrows.

Writing in The Atlantic in 1988, Arianna Huffington outlines the little-known subplot involving Pablo Picasso and the 1911 theft of the Da Vinci masterpiece. Matt Yglesias later explains that the work’s purloiner was an Italian nationalist who was angry the painting lived in a French museum.

In the latest intrigue, a French scientist, who has studied the painting for a decade, has concluded that beneath the portrait that many believe to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant, is a different woman entirely.

“The results shatter many myths and alter our vision of Leonardo’s masterpiece forever,” Pascal Cotte said in a statement. “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.”

Using reflective light technology, Cotte says he discovered a woman beneath Mona Lisa who is looking away instead of directly ahead and not smiling. He also cites the presence of other figures with different physical features.

The Louvre, for its part, has declined comment. Other experts are skeptical and argue artists frequently paint over images on their canvases, particularly for commissions. In an interview with the BBC, Martin Kemp, a professor at Oxford, praised Cotte’s “ingenious” images for giving a sense of Da Vinci’s artistic process. “But,” he added, “the idea that there is that picture as it were hiding underneath the surface is untenable.”

So who’s right? The academic community or one renegade scientist? The answer may lie with Da Vinci himself, who once said, “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”