How a Scientist Solved the Puzzle of the Mona Lisa

Courtesy of the artist and Klein Sun Gallery @ Liu Bolin

Left: Detail of Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1503-06)
Right: Detail of Leonardo's Self-portrait (n.d.), inverted 

The true identity of Leonardo's Mona Lisa has been a long-running mystery captivating generations of art lovers and scholars. Yet the most crucial piece of information about the Mona Lisa missing from standard textbooks is that the proportions of the Mona Lisa’s face differ from an earlier version seen in X-rays but are similar to the artist’s own in a well-known self-portrait (above).1 It was perhaps the greatest art historical discovery of the 20th century. Lillian Schwartz, a computer scientist, revealed in 1987 that the position, angles and dimensions of their eyes, pupils, cheekbones, noses and mouths match precisely. The distances between the inner corners of their eyes, which she described as one of the most individual characteristics of a face, are within 2 percent of one another. Her protruding brow, moreover, is rare in women but a feature of Leonardo and most males as well.2 Not mentioned in her various articles are the common bags under their eyes, also unusual in a young woman, and the long flowing hair. Even the lighting produces similar shading in each face. Schwartz’s findings did not appear in prestigious, academically respected art magazines and have been widely ignored since. One prominent curator even remarked at the time: "Art history will survive this crap".3

Despite continued academic skepticism - her discovery has rarely been mentioned in either books or serious magazines on art - Leonardo himself wrote that there is an automatic tendency in painters to produce figures which ‘resemble their masters’ while an acquaintance of Leonardo’s in Milan mocked him for making his figures look like himself.
More recently, this website has demonstrated that major artists in almost every period since the Renaissance have fused their own features into portraits of others bringing into doubt the long-held belief that portraits are the early equivalent of a photograph. 


First published online 22nd July, 2010. Re-published with minor revisions 12th April 2013.

1. The self-portrait is generally dated 1510 on account of the artist's apparent age, said to be 60. Artists, as I demonstrate on this site, hardly ever draw "photographs", often adapting their features for various poetic reasons. It is very possible that this was drawn long before Leonardo was 60 in an attempt to represent himself with the wisdom of age. 

1. Lillian Schwartz, "Leonardo's Mona Lisa", Art & Antiques, Jan. 1987; “The Art Historian’s Computer”, Scientific American 272, April 1995, pp. 106-11

2. S. J. Freedberg cited in “La Chronique des Arts”, supplement to Gazette des Beaux-Arts 109, May-June 1987, p. 15

Reader Comments

Maybe he was imagining, as an artistic exercise, how he would look as a woman.

29 Oct 2012

Leonardo will always attract seekers!
When I was in Paris 2005, I could not visit the Louvre. But the Louvre came with sound recording equipment, which were kindly provided by the French. Found the “Mona Lisa” and began recording background sound created numerous visitors who came to see the masterpiece. The logic was simple. Allow myself to be noted that any masterpiece has the property of highly structured information field. Man - this is also, at its basis, the field structure. There is a contact of two field structures – human and masterpiece. This is probably the power of art. The sounds published the people who were in the masterpiece (talk, the shuffling of feet, etc.) were very valuable to me, they were correlated associated with him. Subjecting these records complicated transformation process, I managed to get some incredible sound. Many are led into shock - these sounds there is a clear identification with the portrait of “Mona Lisa.” Similar records I’ve made in the famous sculpture of Venus. As a result, based on these records, I had three works - “Knowledge”, “Flow” and “Communication”.
MONA LISA_VENUS(Опыт работы с шедеврами) .avi

Structure of presented video: sound background at Mona Lisa – result of transformational processing of a background, a sound background at Venus – result of transformational processing of a background, a work “Knowledge” fragment (the transformed sounds are used only).
Full details can be found on my master class
Academia of Music, Kishinev MOLDOVA
(sorry, translated by google)

16 Apr 2013

Dear s.
Thanks for the thought. I know many people think that he was, in a sense, cross-dressing but I would bet almost anything that the Mona Lisa was not an artistic exercise like that. Great artists are highly intelligent, far more than most people, myself included, often imagine. They are deadly serious about their art and never treat it lightly. Leonardo had already painted his alter ego as a woman several times before. Some of those women whose portraits he painted were poets themselves, three I think by my current count. They were clearly unusual and outstanding women, and he was probably associating their conceptual powers (both intellectual and sexual) with his own creative powers, the fertile goddess in his mind that makes his soul androgynous. Does that make sense?

Simon Abrahams
16 Apr 2013

What painter has not used himself or herself as a convenient, cooperative (and cheap!) model?

18 Apr 2013

Maybe it is his mother Caterina….they could share similar features and tax records show that she was his dependent later in her life….

28 Jun 2013

No reason that shouldn’t be the case - the creative force that made him - depicted as he might have remembered her when young.  Quite possible.

Thanks for the thought.


Simon Abrahams
29 Jun 2013

Art is a spirit in an Artist. I move through time…I am time.

17 Apr 2016

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