illusionsPaintingSkepticism

The Tale of Mona Lisa and the Hidden Animals

Recently, I found an interesting article. It is a variant on a tale we have heard before – there is a new hypothesis regarding the real meaning behind Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Mona Lisa. And while this story doesn’t have any of the conspiracy hallmarks that seem to trouble da Vinci’s art lately, it does include the “hidden object / hidden meaning” trope.

The Claim

The man behind the new theory is graphic designer and painter, Ron Piccirillo of Rochester, NY. On his blog, Mr. Piccirillo puts forth the claim that hidden within the imagery of Mona Lisa are the heads of animals; specifically, those of of a lion, an ape, a buffalo and a crocodile. Further, he claims that the writings of da Vinci corroborate this finding. And in these writings he has discovered the true identity of the woman depicted in the painting.

The Evidence

Below is an image of the Mona Lisa. You may be familiar with it.

 

Ca. 1503 - 1519, Oil on poplar, 30 x 21 inches, Musée du Louvre, Paris

 

Can you see the hidden animals? Let’s try a different view and you can have another look:

 

 

How about now? Can you see the animal heads? No? Okay, one more try:

 

 

Okay, now you can’t miss them (because I have highlighted them).

According to Mr. Piccirillo, the above highlighted images are the heads of an ape, a lion and a buffalo. He first noticed these images by viewing the painting on its side. In addition, what he calls the ‘d point’ is another piece of his evidence that is taken from Leonardo’s writings. The passage from Leonardo’s writings state:

“Supposing a b to be the picture and d to be the light, I say that if you place yourself between c and e you will not understand the picture well and particularly if it is done in oils, or still more if it is varnished, because it will be lustrous and somewhat of the nature of a mirror. And for this reason the nearer you go towards the point c, the less you will see, because the rays of light falling from the window on the picture are reflected to that point. But if you place yourself between e and d you will get a good view of it, and the more so as you approach the point d, because that spot is least exposed to these reflected rays of light.” – The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, pg 547

Leonardo's diagram

To quote Mr. Picirillo from his blog, “Now why would Leonardo say to view a painting from the d point? This was very odd to me, so I tried it.”

In doing so, Mr. Picirillo discovered a crocodile’s head, which can only be seen on an extreme angle (from the aforementioned ‘d point’) on the left-hand side of the painting.

He then “spent the next two months poring over da Vinci’s journals and came across the passage on envy which for me sums up what this is about.”

“Envy must be represented with a contemptuous motion of the hand towards heaven, because if she could she would use her strength against God; make her with her face covered by a mask of fair seeming; show her as wounded in the eye by a palm branch and by an olive-branch, and wounded in the ear by laurel and myrtle, to signify that victory and truth are odious to her. Many thunderbolts should proceed from her to signify her evil speaking. Let her be lean and haggard because she is in perpetual torment. Make her heart gnawed by a swelling serpent, and make her with a quiver with tongues serving as arrows, because she often offends with it. Give her a leopard’s skin, because this creature kills the lion out of envy and by deceit. Give her too a vase in her hand full of flowers and scorpions and toads and other venomous creatures; make her ride upon death, because Envy, never dying, never tires of ruling. Make her bridle, and load her with divers kinds of arms because all her weapons are deadly.” – The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, pg 677

Again, from Mr. Picirillo’s blog, “No one had ever realized that this passage was about the Mona Lisa. You would never know unless you were able to make the connections with the images viewed from the d-point.” (His full analysis of this quote and how it describes Mona Lisa can be found here.)

 

The Conclusion

Mr. Piccirillo believes that he has discovered the true identity of Mona Lisa – she is Envy personified.

Media Reaction

The story grabbed headlines all over the world. There were stories in The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, and many local news outlets. There were also features on The Today Show and articles all over the blog-o-verse. The dominant theme of the reportage was that an artist had found hidden images in the painting which reveal her true identity. (In one odd twist, zoenature.org – a nature and animal rights blog – has interpreted the news of the hidden animals as “…placed there by Leonardo because of his concern for animal protection.” Um.)

The disappointing thing was that I had a lot of questions that went unanswered by most of the media I saw. I could find only two sources which had contacted art historians: The Today Show (linked above) and this article by ABC News.

So I decided to do a bit of research on my own to see if I could gather all of the facts.

I read a few of the news stories and looked at the painting without any of the highlighted areas to see what I could, to no avail. I was interested in this story because, on occasion, we do learn new things about old artworks. Usually it has to do with new imaging techniques to see beneath the surface of paintings, or new attribution (“We thought this was a Rembrandt, but it’s not”) or new chemical analysis.

But in the end, I have done what no news organization could possibly be expected to do. I have spent an hour Googling the relevant information. And here is what I have found.

 

The Counter-Evidence

The D Point
Let’s begin with what is described above as the ‘d-point’. On his blog Mr. Piccirillo says “Now why would Leonardo say to view a painting from the D point? This was very odd to me…”

The answer to his question is contained in the passage itself.
Leonardo is suggesting to a person who may be viewing an artwork, particularly “if it is done in oils, or still more if it is varnished”, on where to stand so as to avoid catching a reflected glare on the surface of the artwork. Why should this be odd? Leonardo explicitly states why a viewer should stand in a particular area. Keep in mind, there was no electricity. The only light sources at the time were from the sun, lamps or candles, and in the passage he says that his light source is a window. He could not (as we do today) point a flood light from an extreme angle towards his artwork to minimize surface glare. He is literally saying “If the light source is at ‘D’, stand near ‘D’ to reduce the glare seen on the surface of the artwork.” Also, the context of where this statement appears in his notes should be another hint. This passage is part of a long series of notes on painting, drawing, perspective, composition and the like. It should come as no surprise that he also had advice on how best to view an artwork when one cannot control the light source precisely.  Standing at the ‘d point’ won’t reveal anything unless you are looking at an example of anamorphic perspective. And besides, we are told to turn the painting on its side to view most of the animals, except…

 

The Crocodile
When looking at the painting from the left side at an extreme angle, we are told that we will see “the crocodile gnawing on her heart.” Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see anything but a river, a road and some hills. If Leonardo was making an attempt to paint something using the aforementioned anamorphic perspective, he was terrible at it. It should also be pointed out that the passage that is used to justify this imagery states, “Make her heart gnawed by a swelling serpent.” A crocodile is not mentioned. And if one takes the time to look through his notebooks, it is evident that Leonardo knew the difference between a serpent and a crocodile.

 

Envy
Next we have the text that describes “Envy” as envisioned by Leonardo. Mr. Piccirillo’s explanation, in my opinion, is quite a shoehorn job. The text doesn’t remotely fit the Mona Lisa, even if we grant that there are hidden animals in the painting. I wondered if there was a simpler explanation, so I found the passage in Leonardo’s journal. You may be surprised to learn that there is a drawing next to the text that Mr. Piccirillo uses:

 

Envy, as depicted by Leonardo da Vinci

Now let’s compare this drawing with the text:

“Envy must be represented with a contemptuous motion of the hand towards heaven, because if she could she would use her strength against God; make her with her face covered by a mask of fair seeming; show her as wounded in the eye by a palm branch and by an olive-branch, and wounded in the ear by laurel and myrtle, to signify that victory and truth are odious to her. Many thunderbolts should proceed from her to signify her evil speaking. Let her be lean and haggard because she is in perpetual torment. Make her heart gnawed by a swelling serpent, and make her with a quiver with tongues serving as arrows, because she often offends with it. Give her a leopard’s skin, because this creature kills the lion out of envy and by deceit. Give her too a vase in her hand full of flowers and scorpions and toads and other venomous creatures; make her ride upon death, because Envy, never dying, never tires of ruling. Make her bridle, and load her with divers kinds of arms because all her weapons are deadly.” – The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, pg 677

I don’t think I am overstating the case when I say that the image above is exactly what is described in the passage that it accompanies. Further, the Envy sketch is from a suite of several that are allegorical representations – Virtues and Vices (in this case the vice of envy). Also, this suite was made something like 20 years before the Mona Lisa was begun. Of course artists sometimes return to their sketches for inspiration later on – and we have many examples of Leonardo’s sketches from which we can see his process – but the only thing that the Envy sketch has in common with the Mona Lisa is that they both depict women. I do not find it to be a compelling argument.

It should also be mentioned that you and I are seeing the painting in a manner that is far removed from how it looks in person and in time. We are looking at a low resolution digital representation of the painting. It may be lighter or darker than it appears on our screens. It has been restored several times in the past. The surface is riddled with craquelure (even the Wikipedia article uses Mona Lisa as an example) that distorts it greatly – adding small hills and valleys, highlights and shadows that would not have been there when the painting was new. All of these variables increase the odds that we, as viewers, may be able to ‘find’ things that are not actually there. It’s like seeing Jesus in a water stain.

In looking over the evidence that is available, it is my opinion that these new claims are nothing more than pareidolia, cherry picking of evidence and wishful thinking.

So What?

So why spend so much time fussing over this? There are plenty of people out there who have pet theories and it’s not like this is particularly harmful, right? Well, this story gained a lot of traction with the press. Quite a few electrons were spent in disseminating this story of an artist who finally ‘cracked the code’ of, arguably, the most famous painting in the world. But there was almost no expert opinion presented in most of the news stories.  I found only two sources that had comments from art historians. If this was a story about a controversial astronomy story, you can bet the networks would have been falling all over each other to get Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s opinion first. Also, it took very little time for me, a nobody with a computer, to find a counterpoint to the claim. Why can’t news outlets do the same? Or more to the point, why was this even a story in the first place? If we assume for a moment that the claims made about Leonardo’s intent are true, what have we learned? We learn that Leonardo wasted time setting up a puzzle that no one was intended to solve. We see that he had hidden images in his painting that would most likely never be found, because who hangs a painting on its side? We see that one would never have been able to decode the meaning of these images because his notes were disjointed, written backwards, and not published until the 17th century. In short we learn nothing of Leonardo’s intent. In my mind it diminishes the man and the care he took in creating his art.

What we gain when we look at great art is, in my opinion, quite personal. I love the Mona Lisa. It is a beautiful painting made by a master. Her smile never really intrigued me the way it does for so many people. It has always been her hands that entrance me – they look so soft and fleshy, so alive. I can easily imagine what it would feel like to hold those hands to feel their warmth and yet, they are not hands. They are nothing more than pigment and oil spread over a piece of wood. That is the real illusion.

 

Full Disclosure: I had an email correspondence with Ron Piccirillo in which I asked him the questions that I wish the media had – about his process and his interpretation and whether there might be other explanations. Despite a back and forth of 6 emails, he managed to answer none of my questions. 

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Brian George

Brian George

Brian George is an illustrator who lives and works in the Van Beardswick neighborhood of Brooklyn. His fierce love of cheesecake is often (but not always) thwarted by his intolerance for lactose. He will draw and paint for your amusement (‘amusement’ is archaic Etruscan slang for ‘money’). Visit his portfolio, follow his tweets @brianggeorge or on G+

22 Comments

  1. December 29, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    “If this was a story about a controversial astronomy story, you can bet the networks would have been falling all over each other to get Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s opinion first.”

    If it was a serious astronomy story that happened to also be controversial, maybe. But if it was something like this? I don’t think they would, no.

    The media is gullible, but I don’t think they’re that gullible. I think they know perfectly well that if they talked to a serious art historian, they won’t have a story. So they don’t. (Alternately, maybe they did talk to an art historian but didn’t get the quotes they wanted to get, so they didn’t use them.)

    Case in point, paradoleia in astronomy: A few years ago some knucklehead claimed to see a bigfoot figure in an image sent back by one of the Mars rovers. It ran all over the news. Nobody quoted Tyson or any other serious astronomer about it, I assume because it was so obviously just a rock that there was no point. But of course you couldn’t tell that from the stories being ran.

  2. December 29, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    (“pareidolia”, I meant to say.)

  3. December 29, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Oh I remember that! The teeny tiny little bigfoot!

    But you’re right and my analogy may not fit the way I had intended. My main concern was the following sentence “why was this even a story in the first place?
    I’m disappointed. Art rarely makes headlines and when it does, it’s things like this – poorly researched, with little scrutiny, sensational. But I guess that’s become the standard for most reportage.

  4. December 29, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    I’m pretty sure that top one is a Boynton hippo.

  5. December 29, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    “In my mind it diminishes the man and the care he took in creating his art.”

    This sentence really sums up my feelings about any of these hidden images/messages stories. Seriously, convincing yourself that da Vinci filled his work with secret crappy drawings of animals does not add anything to the artist’s brilliance.

    Rather, these types of “discoveries” to do more to inflate the egos of the people who discover them–Mr. Piccirillo is just so smart/talented/special that only HE was able to detect these images and crack the code!

    On a more positive note, I love your last paragraph. Thanks for a great piece, Brian!

  6. December 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    Hi. Ron here. I wanted to chime in.

    Brian, I didn’t take the time to answer your questions because there were certain “surprises” that I want to save for future blogs, books, etc. My newest blog (http://www.thehiddenhorsehead.com/eye-know-what-i-see)
    discusses anamorphic images – which is what some of the Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo, created. The crocodile gnawing on the heart is a anamorphic image. Leonardo may have mentioned a “serpent” in his writings, but who’s to say that the crocodile head I refer to is not his vision of a serpent? He may have used a crocodile head as reference to his serpent. Either way it is there, whether you are able to see it or not.

    By the way, speaking of anamorphic images, you fail to mention that Leonardo da Vinci created the first anamorphic image in history (according to the history books). Why would it surprise anyone to know that he carried this illusion to his paintings also?

    Ron

  7. December 29, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Great job Brian, I agree that thinking da Vinci buried images in his work diminishes the work of a great artist.

    Ron, I haven’t done all the research that Brian has, but Brian does point out in the original post that da Vinci clearly knew the difference between a Crocodile and a serpent.

  8. December 29, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    @Ron: I’m not sure I understand the point behind saving “Surprises” for future books, blogs, etc. If you feel as if you have discovered something so important, something that could convince your detractors, and change the art history text books, why not just make your evidence clear outright? Why the games?

    Also, I didn’t ‘fail’ to mention that Leonardo is the earliest known person to create an anamorphic drawing. I didn’t mention it because it doesn’t matter. I did mention that if he had used it in the Mona Lisa, as you believe he did, that he was terrible at it. The idea that he included such an awful example of a really interesting visual phenomenon in his masterpiece is insulting.

  9. December 30, 2011 at 12:00 am

    So let me get this straight, Leonardo drew a sketch AND wrote a detailed paragraph describing the sketch that he called, Envy. But this guy instead thinks the painting of the calm, forward facing Mona Lisa is Envy in disguise, complete with hidden (unintentional) images that not everyone can see? No, that’s not unnecessarily complex. Occam’s Razor anyone?

  10. December 30, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.

  11. December 30, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Quick how do you say “This is not a Envy” in French? Because in Italian they just say, MONA LISA.

    /art humor.

  12. December 30, 2011 at 5:12 am

    “Hey! There’s some art in my Skepticism.”
    “And there’s some Skepticism in *my* art!”
    “And we like it!”

    The thing that puts this over the top for me is Ron’s inability to understand Leonardo’s very clear explanation of why one should stand at D. It’s like Ron is wilfully ignorant of that explanation. The point of that diagram is clearly to show one where to stand, not in absolute relation to a painting done years later, but in relation to the light source illuminating any painting, Now why on earth can’t Ron understand that?

    And why, oh why, would someone not give all of his evidence to support his claims? There’s a term that’s on the tip of my tongue….monkeypants?…er, no….madeira?… no, no…..monoamine oxidase inhibitors….not quite it…. Ah yes! Monetize, that’s it. Someone needs time to monetize his weak little theory before all the holes in it leave washing back and forth, flaccid and forgotten on beach of reality.

  13. December 30, 2011 at 6:56 am

    {You had me at monkeypants.}

  14. December 30, 2011 at 8:07 am

    Are you sure you highlighted the right areas? I don’t see anything.

  15. December 30, 2011 at 8:47 am

    Well done, brian.

    And I thought I was the only Mona Lisa Hand Man! Nice to know I’m not alone.

    (Wait, that sounded dirty. I didn’t mean it to sound dirty.)

  16. December 30, 2011 at 9:11 am

    @The Central Scrutinizer: Well, according to the claim, I have highlighted the right areas. However, I’m pretty sure that if one were to turn the painting right-side up, one would see some lovely mountains.

  17. December 30, 2011 at 10:15 am

    I thought I should investigate these hidden images and I discovered something amazing. There’s a hidden White Rhinoceros in the dogs playing poker painting.
    http://www.pokertime.eu/images/blogs/mypokertime%20pics%5Cd0.jpg

    Can’t see it? Here, I’ll highlight it.
    http://madartlab.com/files/2011/12/Rhino-Dogs.png

    This is ACTUALLY a painting about the destruction of a species due to the spread of capitalistic ideals. Amazing.

  18. December 30, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    “…One lasting idea Coolidge had, besides the poker dogs, was an invention he called Comic Foregrounds, which resulted in a patent. These foregrounds are the familiar life-sized portraits with holes located where the head should be.”

    From: http://www.dogsplayingpoker.org/bio/coolidge/bio1.html

    Ryan, why are you hiding this crucial piece of evidence?! Obviously this means that Coolidge intended the dogs in the foreground to be comic while the background rhino is the real subject of the piece.

    Wheee, this makin’ shit up is fun!

  19. December 30, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Funny you should mention that…

  20. December 30, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Steve, you’d better hurry up and publish your book so that you’ll be able to accuse them of plagarism.

  21. December 30, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    @coelecanth: I hope you have seen Steve D’s post that is 3 above this one. Prepare to have your mind BLOWN.

  22. December 30, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    Brian:
    “Boomph!”
    [Slump, dribble, dribble, dribble….]

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