A joke from my youth:
“Did you hear what happened when they removed all of Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup? They found Jimmy Hoffa.”
I was reminded of this after the announcement by French scientist Pascal Cotte that there is a painting of a different woman underneath the surface of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
“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 asserted in a BBC documentary. “We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting.”
“This is not the same woman,” he asserted. Cotte’s reconstruction shows a woman looking slightly to the side, with a longer head, larger hands, and with her shoulder turned winsomely to the viewer. More importantly, she hasn’t achieved the thin smile that so captivates modern viewers.
Before Cotte founded Lumiere Technology in 1989, scientists used x-ray and infrared imaging to search for pictures under the top layers of paintings. Cotte’s invention is a super-high-resolution camera that separates the light spectrum into not three colors (RGB) but twelve, including infrared. Since it’s been used on a number of major works, curators must be convinced that it is safe and effective.
But Cotte is a researcher, not a painter. It’s possible he doesn’t understand how paintings are built up. They are not laid down in discrete layers, but are built up incrementally, of changes layered upon changes. Leonardo reportedly messed around with the Mona Lisa for 14 years, so it would be more surprising if it had been painted in one pass. Most paintings morph over time, as the artist’s observations grow more and more precise.
The painting was one of the first portraits to depict the sitter in front of an imaginary landscape. An analysis of the background, focusing on how Leonardo developed his aerial perspective, would have been more interesting to art historians (although less likely to land the inventor lots of media attention).
There is actually another version of the Mona Lisa. It was discovered in the early part of the 20th century in an English home, where it had hung for at least a hundred years. Since it’s privately owned, the attribution of the Isleworth Mona Lisa to Leonardo has never been properly examined. Its proponents claim it is the earlier of two versions of the Mona Lisa. Contemporary records seem to indicate that Leonardo might have had two versions of the painting kicking around for a while.
The backgrounds of the two paintings are radically different, but the proportions of the the face and figure are almost identical. If Leonardo actually painted both of them, why would he have waffled so much on the underpainting of the later one?