Another portrait lies underneath the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, according to a French scientist who has analyzed Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece for more than 10 years.
Pascal Cotte, co-founder of Lumiere Technology, a Paris-based company which relies on multispectral imaging to digitize artworks, was given access to the painting in 2004 by the Louvre.
He claims a reflective light technology he pioneered revealed the underlying portrait of a totally different woman. In particular, the sitter lacks Mona Lisa's famous direct gaze and smile. Instead she looks off to the side.
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Cotte announced his findings at a press conference in Shanghai on Tuesday. His claim will be featured in a BBC documentary called "The Secrets of the Mona Lisa," which airs Wednesday.
The researcher analyzed the Mona Lisa using a technique called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM). It works by projecting a series of intense light onto the painting. By measuring the light's reflections, Cotte reconstructed what was created between the layers of the paint.
"We can now analyze 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," Cotte told the BBC.
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"The results shatter many myths and alter our vision of Leonardo's masterpiece forever," he added.
Mona Lisa has been fascinating art lovers since her portrait was completed toward the end of the life of Leonardo, who lived from 1452-1519.
A long debate about her identity basically ended a decade ago, when conclusive evidence emerged from Heidelberg University Library in Germany.
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Manuscript expert Armin Schlechter discovered a note written by the Florentine city official Agostino Vespucci, an acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci, in the margin of a book he owned. Writing in 1503, Vespucci stated that Leonardo was working on a portrait of "Lisa del Giocondo."
The conclusion is that Mona Lisa is indeed Lisa Gherardini, a member of a minor noble family of rural origins who married the wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
But Cotte argues the image he has found underneath the surface of the painting is the original Lisa, and the portrait named Mona Lisa is another woman.
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"She is totally different to Mona Lisa today. This is not the same woman," he said.
The Louvre Museum has declined to comment on the claim.
Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, and one of the world's leading Da Vinci scholars, is skeptical.
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"The idea that there is that picture as it were hiding underneath the surface is untenable," Kemp told the BBC.
"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. I am absolutely convinced that the Mona Lisa is Lisa," he said.