Is Mona Lisa's Smile A Centuries-Old Fib? Hidden Portrait May Depict The Real Sitter

As the Mona Lisa smiles serenely at the world, giving up none of her centuries-old secrets, scientists and art historians have debated who she is. A French scientist has now thrown a wrench into the debate, declaring dramatically that a portrait hidden between the paint layers reveals the real sitter.

Pascal Cotte goes so far as to say that the world's vision of Leonardo's Da Vinci's most well-known painting will be altered "forever," he told BBC.

"When I finished the reconstruction of Lisa Gherardini, I was in front of the (hidden) portrait and she is totally different to Mona Lisa today. This is not the same woman."
In other words, the scientist believes that the hidden portrait portrays the real woman from history who sat for Leonardo in the 16th century, and the portrait we're all familiar with -- Mona with the alluring smile -- is a different woman entirely, Newsweek clarified.

Pascal's reconstruction took 10 years to complete. The Louvre granted him access to the artwork in 2004 and since then, he'd been studying her secrets carefully with cutting edge technology called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM), a technique Cotte pioneered.

Through this method, he projected powerful lights onto the Mona Lisa with the multispectral camera, then measured the reflections, CNN explained. Those measurements are used to reconstruct any images hiding in the paint.

The masterpiece has been examined plenty of times before over the past 50 years, and none of them have revealed any secrets. However, those techniques, like infrared inspections and multi-spectral scanning, don't penetrate deep enough to reveal anything far beneath the surface, Cotte explained.

"We can now analyse exactly what is happening inside the layers of the paint and we can peel like an onion all the layers of the painting. We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting."
What Pascal claims to have found is interesting -- three different pictures of what he says is someone other than the Mona Lisa. History doesn't know exactly who she is either, but many historians believe she is Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant.

He believes that hidden portrait is likely the real thing, not the lady smiling in the Louvre. The one he is most interested in shows a woman gazing off into the distance -- not directly at her admirers -- with not a shred of a smile on her face.

"My (technique) takes us into the heart of the paint-layers of the world's most famous picture and reveals secrets that have remained hidden for 500 years. The results shatter many myths and alter our vision of Leonardo's masterpiece forever."
He found two more hidden paintings beneath the surface. One features a shadowy outline of a figure with a larger head and nose, larger hands, and smaller lips, and the other is a Madonna-style portrait that features a woman wearing the etchings of a pearl headdress.

Not everyone is buying Cotte's tale, however. Though he praised the "innovative" technique employed, art historian Martin Kemp said he believes that what he actually uncovered is the natural evolution of Da Vinci's work.

"(The images] are ingenious in showing what Leonardo may have been thinking about. But the idea that there is that picture as it were hiding underneath the surface is untenable. I do not think there are these discrete stages which represent different portraits. I see it as more or less a continuous process of evolution. "
Another expert said caution, and careful corroboration, by the arts community is needed. So far, the Louvre hasn't weighed in, since the museum wasn't part of the new examination.

Historians believe Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1517 while in Florence, and then France. Today, it's the most valuable painting in the world, with a worth of $782 million, the Independent added.

[Image via S-F/Shutterstock]