Cracking da Vinci’s Code

Urbino researchers solve mysteries of the Mona Lisa.

For centuries, art aficionados have wondered about history’s most mysterious smile as well as the woman wearing it.: Who is Mona Lisa, and where was she when Leonardo da Vinci recorded the smile that has kept the world guessing?

With apologies to Dan Brown, two Urbino women may have cracked da Vinci’s code.

Today, artist and photographer Rosetta Borchia and college professor Olivia Nesci are credited with unveiling one of the many secrets of the Mona Lisa. Along the way they have created a new science which they call “landscape hunting” – the specialty of identifying the locations of landscapes in historic paintings.

“We know the location of the backdrop da Vinci used for La Gioconda,” Nesci says confidently, using the other name Italians apply to the Mona Lisa. “And that helped identify her, too.”

Landscape hunters

Landscape hunters Olivia Nesci (left) and Rosetta Borchia (right) at the location identified as the backdrop of the Mona Lisa.

Borchia and Nesci began their careers as landscape hunters in 2007 while casually taking pictures of a landscape. One image Borchia saw in her viewfinder reminded her of a painting by Early Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca. Over the next weeks and months she was able to confirm her guess.

That discovery led the pair to further investigate other creations by Piero. It was while on a trip to study the landscape in Piero’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro’s wife, Batista Sforza, however, that Borchia and Nesci came across a hill that would dramatically change the course of their careers – and art history.

“We were walking on a cliff in Valmarrechia studying Piero’s work, when I realized the landscape looked familiar to Leonardo’s (Mona Lisa) – even though in the painting the landscape is compressed,” says Borchia.

We were walking on a cliff in Valmarrechia studying Piero’s work, when I realized the landscape looked familiar to Leonardo’s (Mona Lisa) – even though in the painting the landscape is compressed.

In their book entitled Codice P (Code P), the two researchers explain how Leonardo used a special technique to express landscape in his paintings. The master would often translate what he saw in a very wide area into a vision narrow enough to fit on his canvas – in effect condensing the size of the landscape while retaining its outstanding surface features, such as that hill behind the Mona Lisa. The landscape hunters found this technique in many of Leonardo’s work. Eventually, they named it “code P,” the “P” standing for paesaggio, Italian for landscape.

This breakthrough led them to believe that the landscape in the Mona Lisa is real, contrary to popular belief. Nesci explains that the geological makeup of the location in the Mona Lisa is distinct and that they had no doubt they had found it when they saw that particular hill.

“You can say that hills are all the same, but it was impossible to assume that – this hill was one of a kind. It has special features that you can’t find anywhere else,” says Nesci. “The current landscape and the one in La Gioconda have the same geological boundary, same river, and same shape.”

Rosetta Borchia

Rosetta Borchia points out the similarities between the real landscape in the Marche region, and how it was represented by Leonardo da Vinci in the Mona Lisa.

After finding the hill, Borchia and Nesci decided to further investigate other scenic elements featured in the Mona Lisa by dividing its background into six parts and meticulously studying the geographical features in each of them. For four years, they researched historical data of the region they deem serves as Mona Lisa’s setting. They also worked with an archeologist to confirm the existence of some landscape features that show up in the painting but are now gone, such as a bridge that was once located in the region of Pennabilli, a commune in the Province of Rimini, 35 miles northwest of Urbino.

According to Nesci, Leonardo joined many other painters of the era to use the central Italian region of le Marche (mar-KAY) landscape because it offered a variety of surface features.

“Every single painter from the Renaissance period came to Urbino to paint and study its landscape because this was the ‘factory of landscape’, a place to learn how to paint,” says Nesci.

Borchia and Nesci’s claim about the landscape in the Mona Lisa gained importance because it supported art historian Roberto Zapperi’s thesis on the real identity of Mona Lisa – one of the greatest debates in art history.

Zapperi argues that the woman in the painting is Urbino resident Pacifica Brandani, who had an affair with Giuliano de Medici, son of Lorenzo “The Magnificent” Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic during the Renaissance. Brandani died after giving birth to her lover’s child, a son named Pasqualino. Zapperi says Giuliano asked his friend Leonardo to paint a portrait of a woman so that he could show his son who his mother was. Having never met Pacifica, Leonardo, who also grew up without a mother, painted his vision of an ideal mother figure.

Zapperi’s study, “Goodbye Mona Lisa: The True Story of the Gioconda,” was released at the same time as Borchia and Nesci’s research. Although they were thrilled about how well both works interlaced, they claim that the biggest satisfaction they’ve had about their work came after they presented their findings to Pennabilli residents.

“We were in a theater in Pennabilli presenting our book and every person in the valley was there,” says Borchia. “After we presented our discoveries and images in the end of the presentation, people who lived in the area shook our hands – some in tears – and said that they recognized the landscape. They recognized the place they lived in the Gioconda. They would say, ‘This is Pennabilli, our land!’”

Looking back on their long journey, Borchia and Nesci never expected that one day they would be travelling around Italy unveiling the secrets of Leonardo and the story of Pacifica Brandani. They remember at the start of their work being called “the mad women of Urbino.”

Panorama of Pennabilli

Panorama of Pennabilli in Marche, Italy that was identified as the landscape used in the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

“People used to stop us on the street and say, ‘How dare you?’ because we had theories about an untouchable piece of history,” Nesci says. “It was very hard, but now we laugh about it.”

And while some people have now accepted their findings, Borchia isn’t expecting universal approval any time soon.

“I know I won’t be able to see the impact of our book and finding because it will take one hundred years for that to happen,” she says. “New things take time to be accepted.”

Instead of waiting for that to happen, the landscape hunters are already working on solving other mysteries of the art world. But now they are joined by a mathematician so that they can dig deeper into Leonardo’s technique using mathematical rules.

Who knows? It could lead to another of da Vinci’s codes.



About Giovanna Rajao

In addition to becoming acquainted with the the Italian culture, I have learned how to be a well-rounded journalist. Not only am I now comfortable with shooting video, but also with writing, taking pictures, and communicating with people despite not speaking their language.