Does geometry unlock the secrets of the Mona Lisa?
A Swiss foundation presents geometrical evidence to suggest there was an earlier version of da Vinci's portrait
Ever since Dan Brown's 2003 blockbusting mystery novel, The Da Vinci Code, hit paydirt, heretical claims surrounding the works of the works of the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci have taken on a slightly fictional gloss.
So, it was with some skepticism that we read through the latest reports from the Zurich-based Mona Lisa Foundation. This research body is, in its own words, devoted to "the research and analysis of the earlier version of Leonardo's famous 'Mona Lisa' painting, often referred to as the 'Isleworth Mona Lisa'."
Not everyone in the art world believes this painting, first attributed to da Vinci by the British art collector Hugh Blaker, (1873-1936) in 1913, is by the great Italian polymath. Blaker apparently discovered the work among the possessions of a Somerset nobleman; it went on to to take its informal name from Blaker's studio in Isleworth, West London where it was initially kept; since then, it has changed hands a couple of times, until it came into the ownership of a Swiss consortium.
Working in concert with its owners, the Mona Lisa Foundation initially put forward its claims of authenticity for the Isleworth Mona Lisa being an earlier version by da Vinci, towards the end of 2012, when the work was unveiled for the first time in 40 years.
This month, it's issued further documents, including claims made on its behalf by the Italian geometry specialist Alfonso Rubino, who says he has found the geometrical principles employed in Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (circa 1490) in both the original Mona Lisa (1503-1519) and the Isleworth painting, which the Foundation says dates from 1501-1505.
The Foundation has bundled these new findings in with recent carbon dating tests, as well as slightly more highfalutin claims, based on four tests undertaken by a Californian nuclear physicist, "who digitised the brushstrokes of both paintings, [and] established scientifically that both the 'Earlier Version' and the 'Mona Lisa' in the Louvre would have been executed by the same artist." It adds, perhaps overweeningly, that "This brush- stroke analysis identifies conclusively an artist in the same way that DNA or fingerprints identify criminals."
Without all the evidence we feel a little underqualified to comment on whether these results truly prove who painted the canvas, however they do add to the desire, intrigue and scholastic agility that Leonardo's work engenders in many within the art world.
For more on the story, read The Foundation's own 'new results'; for a counterpoint, consider this personal post from the great Oxford professor Martin Kemp, and for a fresh look at both The Mona Lisa and other works, consider this new addition to our best-selling Colour Library series of introductory books on the great masters and movements in art.