Exclusive - The Mona Lisa's mystery solved?

September 26 2011

Image of Exclusive - The Mona Lisa's mystery solved?


Leonardo's Mona Lisa, begun in c.1503, has attracted more than its fair share of wild theories. Some say it is a portrait of Leonardo in drag, or more recently that it is the 'the depiction of a soul shared between an expectant mother and her unborn male child'. But now an intriguing new theory has been put forward by Donato Pezzutto, a Canadian doctor who is a keen amateur art historian. His theory is published in an article in Cartographica, a journal which publishes 'articles on all aspects of cartographic and geovisualization research'.

Here's the abstract from Pezzutto's article (quoted with kind permission): [More below]

Leonardo arranged the landscape in the Mona Lisa to hold two disjoined halves of one image. That image can be reassembled by juxtaposing two copies of the painting side by side [as shown roughly above]. The newly reconstituted landscape corresponds to an actual place, as depicted in Leonardo’s Val di Chiana map. In this article, the identity of the sitter and opinions relevant to the background landscape are considered, Leonardo’s developments in the depiction of depth outlined, and his technique of topographic perspective introduced. Analysis of these observations, along with Leonardo’s investigations in perception, perspective, monocular and binocular vision, and cartography, lead to understanding of his technique. Speculation as to Leonardo’s motivation include a pun on La Gioconda and his attempt at stereoscopy.

Pezzutto believes that the clue to Leonardo's mystery lies in the artist's interest in cartography and topography. The key to the theory is Leonardo's map of the Val di Chiana in Tuscany of 1502-3 (below), now in the Royal Collection. He has built on the theory, first published by Carlo Starnazzi and Carlo Pedretti in 2003, that the background of the Mona Lisa was 'not a fantasy but a precise depiction of the confluence of the Arno and Chiana rivers'. That theory grew out of Leonardo's 'precise topographical knowledge' gained when the artist worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, of which the map is evidence. 

Picture: Royal Collection

However, Pezzutto claims that only by inverting the background image can one arrive at an accurate view of the terrain in the Val di Chiana:

This new landscape does, in fact, resemble an actual place: it is an aerial view of the Tuscan Val di Chiana region, seen from above Castiglion Fibocchi in the Pratomagno hills, looking in a south easterly direction toward Castiglione del Lago on Lake Trasimeno. A review of the reconstituted landscape allows us to match the painting to that area, and that area is depicted in Leonardo's Val di Chiana map.

As seen in the main image, if you flip the background of the Mona Lisa as Pezzutto suggests, the two separate lakes at the top of the background, one on the far right and the other on the far left in the original painting, then become one single lake, Lake Tresimeno. The corresponding mountain ranges also seem to join up. In that respect, the theory certainly seems to work.

Here, again quoted with Dr Pezzutto's kind permission, are the key points of the recreated view:

  • From a point above Castiglion Fibocchi we see a
  • slope of the Pratomagno (lower left), followed by
  • the confluence of the Arno with Ponte Buriano (left) and the Chiana River (right), separated by the high ground between them, then
  • a road meandering past Arezzo (behind the subject) to a gap in a ridge of hills (left), then
  • a ridge of hills (right) with the wide Chiana beyond them. Siena would be to the right (behind the subject), then
  • the hills around Cortona leading up to Lake Trasimeno, with the spit of land holding Castiglione del
  • Lago (just to the left), and, finally,
  • the distant mountains to the horizon

But - there is of course a catch, with the theory requiring an element of cartographical jiggery-pokery. As Pezzutto says:

If we try to re-create this using a programme such as Google Earth 3D, we see slight discrepancies.

Instead, you have to imagine the landscape in a technique called:

...'topographic perspective', [which] uses the cartographic techniques of map-making to depict depth in landscapes'

Pezzutto likens Leonardo's topographic approach to:

..reading the tabs of a file cabinet. Thus Leonardo could recall a series of observations to create aerial maps or to create landscapes.

Pezzutto speculates that Leonardo built this visual trick into the background of the Mona Lisa as a form of visual pun. He notes that while the portrait was a commissioned work, Leonardo kept the painting himself, displaying it often. The topographic trick, therefore, was a:

... a visual pun on La Gioconda, the playful or jocular lady, and as an incomplete stereogram resulting from his investigations of binocular perception.

Now, Pezzutto's argument is a complex one, and requires a degree of cartographic knowledge, as well as familiarity with the Tuscan landscape. I can't do full justice to it here, and have only reproduced part of the argument. The full article is well worth downloading (you can do so here, but it requires a fee). So I'm in no position to comment on the theory, other than to say that it is intriguing, and certainly on a purely visual level appears to make some sense.

And yet... As with all Mona Lisa theories, I personally subscribe to the dull and long accepted view (at least, accepted before the conspiracy obsessed late 20th Century) that the painting is simply a portrait, albeit a brilliant one. Indeed, the sitter has long been known, thanks to Georgio Vasari, who wrote in 1550 that the sitter was Madonna Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, hence Mona Lisa or La Gioconda. Furthermore, we now know the identity of the sitter beyond any doubt, thanks to the recent discovery by Dr. Armin Schlechter of a document dated 1503, the year Leonardo began the work, in which the Florentine official Agostino Vespucci wrote that Leonardo was working on a portrait of... Lisa del Giocondo.

Still, if Dr Pezzutto's theory becomes accepted, remember, you read it here first...

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.