UVA Art Professor Joins a Big Debate Over a Tiny Detail

Louvre Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci

A historian thinks he’s solved one of the Mona Lisa’s mysteries. University of Virginia art history professor Francesca Fiorani completely disagrees.

This time, the debate isn’t over who actually is depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous 16th-century painting, but instead focuses on an object that appears in the background over the sitter’s left shoulder.

Italian historian Silvano Vinceti claims he has proof that the image of the bridge depicted over her shoulder is a depiction of a real-life bridge known as Ponte Romito, located in the Tuscan village of Laterina. Smithsonian Magazine, CNN and other media outlets jumped on the story.

Other villages have made similar claims in the past, but Vinceti says he has modern proof. His evidence is that a virtual reconstruction of the bridge – which today lies in ruins ­­– reveals it once had four complete arches, matching the bridge shown in the painting. Further, Vinceti asserts the landscape behind the Mona Lisa resembles the Ponte Romito area and that Florentine historical records show da Vinci was in the region around the same time he began to paint the Mona Lisa.


Francesca Fiorani

Francesca Fiorani was sought by major media outlets to fact check an Italian historian’s claim about a bridge depicted in the Mona Lisa. She doesn’t agree that the Italian’s research is accurate. (Contributed photo)


But Fiorani says these claims have no merit.

“It’s very tempting for us to think of these landscapes as snapshots [of nature],” Fiorani said. And that is exactly what these villages, alongside a majority of viewers, have assumed with the Mona Lisa – that it depicts a mystery woman, with a mysterious background behind her, containing secrets that can be solved.

Fiorani contends da Vinci did not paint any specific, real bridge. It’s something he just imagined as part of the background.

To come to that conclusion, she says, it’s critical for historians to know what kind of artist da Vinci was, and how he differed from other painters. Fiorani is a long-time student of da Vinci’s work and has published multiple books on the subject, including “The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo da Vinci How to Paint” and “Leonardo da Vinci and Optics: Theory and Pictorial Practice.” She is also the director of the digital project Leonardo da Vinci and His Treatise on Painting, housed at UVA’s Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities.


Zoomed in shot of the bridge referenced in the Mona Lisa painting

Real or imagined? New research suggests this bridge in the background was a real structure and therefore offers clues to the location where Leonardo da Vinci painted the famous portrait. But UVA’s Francesca Fiorani says the bridge existed only in da Vinci’s imagination. (Contributed photo)


According to Fiorani, the Mona Lisa’s landscape is inspired by those found in Tuscany, with its rolling hills, rivers and bridges. So it’s not surprising that towns like Laterina and historians like Vinceti have reached their conclusions. However, this is where Fiorani’s analysis diverges from theirs.

For da Vinci, it was “not enough to recreate one particular landscape … but learning from them and then composing his own view of nature,” Fiorani said. Da Vinci does not copy scenery in his paintings, but instead acts as an acute observer of nature.

“[What] was really important for him was to understand the phenomena that make nature work,” she said.

Rather than da Vinci depicting the actual Ponte Romito bridge in the Mona Lisa, Fiorani suggests he took inspiration from his surroundings and used what he saw to create imaginary landscapes and tinker with the natural phenomena he observed.

Furthermore, unbeknownst to most viewers, the Mona Lisa is an unfinished painting, Fiorani said. One side of the landscape – on which the bridge appears – is on a high level of finish, while the opposite side has missing layers. What looks like a road to some is actually incomplete layers of foundation for background details that were never added, Fiorani said.

“That painting stayed with him his entire life. He never departed from that painting,” Fiorani said, describing it as “kind of an experiment” that he used to create his own imaginings. Thus, she says, the landscape doesn’t depict any real and specific place.

Mona Lisa’s full meaning might never be known, and the bridge behind her shoulder will likely remain a mystery. That could be for the better.

“Leonardo created this portrait that was not mysterious, but suggestive. That invites people to relate to [it], so you the viewer bring to the image your view, your experience, your interpretation. … And that’s what great art does.”