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Leonardo da Vinci unmasked: Hidden dots expose secret alterations to Mona Lisa

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The iconic early 16th Century painting, which currently hangs in the Louvre Museum, in Paris, is considered to be among Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces. Despite his notoriety, mystery surrounds much of the artist’s life and many still debate the identity of the Mona Lisa. But scientist Pascal Cotte, who digitised the painting and spent a decade studying it, believes his findings answer some of those questions. Using a high-definition camera and a specialist technique, he discovered hidden marks along that indicate changes da Vinci made to the world-famous artwork. 

Mr Cotte was able to “analyse all parts of the painting” and made a number of conclusions about the piece, thanks to his Layer Amplification Method (LAM).

His technique, which detected how light interacts with the paint, allowed him to view “different layers” of the piece and find previously hidden features. 

One discovery was a hidden face beneath the Mona Lisa – a woman who appeared to have smaller lips, a thinner nose and other facial differences. 

Mr Cotte also found what looked like a small hairpin slightly to the right of her forehead, which he claimed would not have been painted to show a woman of the 16th Century.

He told that it was “not the fashion at that time” and would most likely have been used to portray “the Virgin Mary” or “an unreal woman like a Goddess”.

Mr Cotte continued: “People had to be dressed in certain ways to denote their profession and nobility.

“So it is not possible for Mona Lisa to have hair like this, it was impossible of the time in the city of Florence.”

The scientist also discovered spolvero marks – a process that would allow a sketch to be transferred onto the portrait’s wooden canvas – and was “visible only in light areas” of the painting.

He claimed the small dots and lines were made with charcoal dust as a guide and were later painted over by da Vinci after he discovered them on the Mona Lisa’s forehead, hand and finger. 

Mr Cotte explained that the spolvero technique was typically used as a “very fast way to make a portrait”.

He told “The spolvero proves there is another version of the forehead because the underline drawing does not match with the Mona Lisa.

“It is proof that the head was turned on the right and it shows the embroidery, which was fashion in the time of Florence in 1503 from the former painting.

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“He changed the position of the head to make her look right at you, like a mother and everybody has a mother so can share and feel emotion while looking at the portrait.” 

Similarly, Mr Cotte claimed the position of the hand and little finger of her left hand was altered too.  

He believed that da Vinci “transferred a portrait of the Mona Lisa because he was very, very busy” and “didn’t have time to paint a new portrait”.

Mr Cotte continued: “Leonardo da Vinci keeps the hands, keeps landscape and the sleeve and then transfers the head [of the Mona Lisa] to hide all the dress the Florentine decoration.

“For him it was a very fast way to make a portrait… It’s difficult to know how much time it took but it would have been much faster than painting a new portrait.

“He kept the hand because that is one of the most difficult exercises for a painter and he just changed the position of one finger, which we can clearly see from my LAM technique.”

Mr Cotte analysed 1,650 images taken using his specialist technique, which allowed him to study parts of the Mona Lisa that had never been seen before.

He claimed his discoveries disputed “the original hypothesis that only the portrait of Mona Lisa was painted on this poplar plank”.

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The scientist continued: “The discovery of the spolvero and this little drawing show that it is not that simple.

“I made a systematic study of the entire surface of the paint. So this drawing could not escape me.”

Mr Cotte explained the LAM technique makes it “possible to see different states of light penetration in the layers of paint”. 

He continued: “LAM images show different light and matter interactions – these interactions change according to the wavelengths used in the calculations. 

“Sequencing LAM images through a video is the easiest way for scholars to approach for the first time the outputs of the LAM.”

Mr Cotte’s investigation led him to make 150 discoveries, which he published in his 2015 book ‘Lumiere on The Mona Lisa: Hidden Portraits’ – but the scientist has no intention of stopping there.

He said: “Leonardo painted a little more than a dozen paintings. I have digitised three of them with the multispectral camera. 

“So there is still more to be done and I have learned that the LAM technique almost always holds surprises.”

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