Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has captivated viewers for many reasons. There’s the enigmatic smile, Leonardo’s sfumato technique on full display, and the subject’s mysterious identity. But few people concern themselves with the background of the work. The Mona Lisa is one of the few portraits from the Renaissance that use a completely imaginary landscape as its backdrop. So, unlike Café Terrace at Night by Van Gogh or Grant Wood’s American Gothic, you can’t go to the exact location the Mona Lisa sits in front of to recreate it for yourself. However, according to one Italian researcher, there is a part of the Mona Lisa’s background you can visit.
To the right of the subject, over her shoulder, there’s a bridge. It’s one of the most discussed parts of the painting’s background since some believe that Leonardo da Vinci based the design on a real bridge in Tuscany. Many believe it is based on the Ponte Buriano, a bridge that spans the River Arno about five miles outside Arezzo. At least, the surrounding town would like you to think so. The local government has asserted this in trying to promote tourism. But now, Silvano Vinceti is putting forth another candidate. He claims that the Ponte Romito, a now-ruined bridge on the Arno seven miles west of the Ponte Buriano, is the structure depicted in the background of the Mona Lisa.
Vinceti claims that the bridge in the painting has four arches and, therefore, could not be the six-arched Buriano bridge. Though only a small part of the Ponte Romito remains, the bridge had four arches when it was in use. Vinceti claims that Leonardo must have used the structure as a model while staying in the nearby town of Laterina. But of course, identifying the background bridge is difficult since any bridge in Tuscany with four arches could have inspired Leonardo. But beneath the marvel of this development, something is unsettling about this whole story. Many focus on the story, but they should instead focus on the one who’s telling it.
Silvano Vinceti is a researcher that has spent an incredible amount of time studying the Mona Lisa. But calling him a “researcher” may be giving him a little too much credit. He’s the kind of scholar one would never see in a library or a university classroom. Instead, he seems like a character from a Dan Brown novel. Some may remember Vinceti as the researcher who exhumed the body of Lisa del Giocondo, who many agree was the Mona Lisa’s subject. He wanted to perform tests on the corpse, including facial reconstruction, to not only see if she was the Mona Lisa’s subject but to hopefully dispel any rumors that the Mona Lisa was a feminized self-portrait. Vinceti has done this before with other Italian figures, including Petrarch and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, opening up their tombs to perform forensic tests. His fixation on the Mona Lisa has lasted several years, with his theories remaining unsupported by art historians and technicians. For example, he once claimed he found someone’s initials painted into the Mona Lisa’s eyes. He also proposed that the Mona Lisa is a composite portrait, combining Lisa del Giocondo’s facial features with those of Leonardo’s student and possible lover Gian Giacomo Caparotti, who became known as an artist under the name Salaì.
I first became suspicious of Vinceti when he told CNN that his interest in Da Vinci is very personal because they share many attributes. One of them he mentioned that surprised me was that Leonardo “never went to university, didn’t learn Greek or Latin, and was not considered learned.” That’s always reassuring to hear from someone claiming to be an authority on Italian Renaissance figures. I dug a little deeper, and I found that Vinceti has no real training or experience as a historian, art restorer, art conservator, or forensic scientist. He has never taught in a classroom, and he has never had any research published in any credible academic journals. Before he started digging up bodies, he was a television presenter. He presented documentaries, some of them on Italian history. Some may argue that this is not equivalent to earning an advanced degree and learning how to perform historical research. Sitting around in the archives poring over manuscripts must not have been sexy enough, so Vinceti decided to make it sexy by pitching himself as a real-life Indiana Jones of some kind.
Vinceti’s escapades have produced occasional results, though. When he exhumed the body of Pico della Mirandola, forensic analysis indicated that he had died from arsenic poisoning. When he opened Petrarch’s tomb in Arquà, he found someone had replaced his skull with a young girl’s. While some of these were interesting discoveries, they were not the breakthroughs that some heralded them as. That someone stole Petrarch’s skull in the six-hundred-fifty years following his death does not change how readers interpret his poetry. Tracking down the remains of the Baroque painter Caravaggio did nothing to revolutionize the way we view his shadowy canvases. And claiming that one bridge or another is the one in the Mona Lisa’s background will do very little to advance scholarship about Da Vinci, his works, or the wider Italian Renaissance period. Vinceti’s work not only does it do nothing to further academic debate, but it distracts people from the real conversations that experts in the field are having about these subjects. So I’d take everything he says with a grain of salt.