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An Italian Geologist May Have Solved the Mystery of the Mona Lisa's Background

The artistic community has long debated where the renowned portrait’s backdrop is set. Geologist and Renaissance specialist Ann Pizzorusso claims to have tied its location to a city in northern Italy.

By Lily Carey
May 23, 2024 6:00 PM
Oil painting portrait of Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506.
(Credit: Gwengoat/Shutterstock)


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The Mona Lisa has long captivated viewers around the world with the mystery that surrounds it, from the subject’s mysterious identity to her ever-present gaze. Now, in early 2024, over 500 years after Leonardo Da Vinci originally painted the iconic masterpiece, one of its biggest mysteries may have been solved. 

Ann Pizzorusso, a geologist and art historian from Italy, says she’s identified the background of the portrait: the city of Lecco, nestled along the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy.  

For centuries, art historians have debated what location inspired the Mona Lisa’s picturesque backdrop — or if its background is even meant to depict a particular real-world location. However, Pizzorusso says she used her expertise in geology to match the limestone rocks in the painting with the scenic landscape of Lecco.  

“The most important aspect is the surrounding landscape,” she told Reuters. “And in other theories, the geology was just incorrect.” 

The Mona Lisa and Lecco 

While the background of the Mona Lisa may not seem very distinctive to the naked eye, it contains a few key clues that Pizzorusso and others have used to try and track down the painting’s original setting.  

For example, the bridge depicted in the background can be matched to the Ponte Azzone Visconti, an arched bridge dating back to the 14th century that traverses the Ada River in Lecco. The town’s lakeside location also match up with a waterway that can be seen in the painting’s backdrop. 

The strongest piece of evidence in Pizzorusso’s favor, though, is her ability to pinpoint the rocky cliffs rising behind Mona Lisa in the portrait. She noticed that the mountains towering behind the Mona Lisa’s subject appeared to be made of limestone — and that they resembled the Dolomites of Lecco, the limestone, dolomite and clay mountains that surround the city. They’re known for their vibrant colors and rich vegetation. 

While da Vinci is primarily remembered for his artistic works, he was also a true Renaissance man who had an extensive knowledge of geology. He’s known for using his in-depth knowledge of the natural and physical sciences to enhance his paintings and sculptures.   

Read More: 5 People Famous For Mixing Science With Art

Other Theories About the Mona Lisa

Over the years, many other art historians have attempted to identify the background of the Mona Lisa, with most placing the portrait somewhere in the Italian Alps.  

Many theories have focused on identifying the bridge in the painting, which can be seen just over the subject’s right shoulder. Recent theories have focused on a few different bridges in the province of Arezzo, near Florence, as potential matches, including Ponte Buriano in the town of Laterina.  

New theories have continued to emerge into the 21st century. In 2023, historian Silvani Vinceti claimed the background depicted the Tuscan town of Laterina, identifying some of the town’s distinctive physical landmarks like the Ponte Romito.  

Still, despite her use of geology to identify the mountains behind the Mona Lisa, Pizzorusso’s claims have been met with both support and skepticism from those in the artistic community. And as various Italian villages continue to claim the portrait’s backdrop, others maintain that Da Vinci painted the mountainside scenery purely from his imagination. 

With no record of the portrait’s painting left behind in the artist’s journals, the mystery of Mona Lisa’s background may never be solved. But with new geological evidence at her disposal, Pizzorusso remains hopeful that her hypothesis will help paint Da Vinci’s work in a new light. 

“I feel so good that maybe people will look at him as not only a painter but as a geologist,” she said.  

Read More: Rescue Archaeology Prevents History From Being Erased

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