The Man Who Wants to Dig Up Mona Lisa

Silvano Vinceti has been trying to identify Leonardo da Vinci's model for years

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Italian art historian Silvano Vinceti's journey to identify the woman depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" has now wound its way to a graveyard. Yes: Vinceti has literally decided to unearth the mystery behind da Vinci's masterpiece.

Later this month, the Associated Press reports, Vinceti and his research team will head to a Florence convent to dig up the remains of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Renaissance-era silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. Many suspect da Vinci based "Mona Lisa" on Gherardini because the painting is known in Italian as "La Gioconda" and because a 16th-century da Vinci biographer wrote that the artist painted a portrait of del Giocondo's wife. If Vinceti's researchers find skull fragments that can be traced to Gherardini, they'll try to reconstruct Gherardini's face to determine whether she was the model for the "Mona Lisa."

Vinceti--who also claims to have dug up the bones of Caravaggio--has been conducting his Da Vinci Code-like investigation of the "Mona Lisa" for some time. Here are some other milestones in the quest:


Vinceti claims he's found a secret code in Mona Lisa's eyes after magnifying a digital copy of the portrait (the impetus for the project was the discovery of a book in an antique shop discussing symbolism in Mona Lisa's eyes). He sees the letters "L" and "V" in the right eye--presumably indicating da Vinci's initials--but the initials in the left eye, which he imagines reveal the identity of da Vinci's model, are harder to make out. He's unsure whether the letters are "B" or "S" or "C" and "E."

Vinceti also sees the number "149" plus an erased digit in the painting, which leads him to believe that da Vinci painted "Mona Lisa" in the 1490s while staying at a Milanese court. He therefore concludes that the painting's subject cannot be Lisa Gherardini, who was in Florence at the time (Gherardini was born in 1479).


Vinceti seeks permission to exhume da Vinci's suspected remains in France to test the theory that "Mona Lisa" was a self-portrait. The art historian plans to employ the strategy he will later use for Gherardini: find the painter's skull and recreate his face. According to The Wall Street Journal, Vinceti also wants to prove his long-time hunch that da Vinci was a vegetarian. The project appears to have never gotten off the ground.


Vinceti's now says the hidden letters in Mona Lisa's eyes are "L" and "S," and that the "S" stands for Salai, da Vinci's male apprentice and possible lover. He adds that similarities between the Mona Lisa's nose and mouth and the facial characteristics of figures in other da Vinci works like "St. John the Baptist" and the "Angel Incarnate" provide further evidence that Salai, who served as a model for several da Vinci paintings, was the primary inspiration for the "Mona Lisa."

Experts at the Louvre in Paris--where the "Mona Lisa" is on display--beg to differ. They argue that their laboratory tests have revealed no letters or numbers in the painting and that cracks in the "Mona Lisa" over time have "caused a number of shapes to appear that have often been subject to over-interpretation," according to AFP. To which Vinceti replies, "They're really blind."

So is Vinceti now, in trying to excavate Gherardini, backpedaling on his "male model" hypothesis? Not necessarily. He tells the AP that Gherardini might have been an early model and Selai a later influence. Alas, Vinceti's latest project--which the council of Florence supports--might very well fail. According to The Daily Mail, locals say the remains of the Florence convent where Gherardini is believed to be buried were bulldozed into a "rubbish dump" thirty years ago.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.