An engineer used powerful lights, cameras, and computer software to digitally remove the varnish from the "Mona Lisa," allowing people today to see the painting as Leonardo da Vinci created it.
Giving the "Mona Lisa" a Digital Makeover
Published: November 22, 2019
Walter Isaacson: If we could just take that varnish off, we could see it the way Leonardo really did it. But I think French governments have fallen for less cause than trying to take the Mona Lisa out of circulation and clean it.
Narrator: Perhaps there is another way. Could she be given a digital makeover?
That is what Pascal Cotte is trying to do. He has analyzed the "Mona Lisa" with a remarkably powerful camera and lights, which he demonstrates using a replica.
Pascal Cotte: We make the measurements in the basement of the Louvre, inside the laboratory. It’s very emotional to have the painting in your hands without the frame. You can look at this painting under this very intense light, that reveal everything that you cannot see, usually.
Narrator: Cotte’s extremely detailed scan of the "Mona Lisa" and his analysis of the optics and chemistry of paint reveal how the colors may have changed over time. It’s not just the varnish that yellows and darkens, but the pigments and oil in the paint itself.
Cotte’s challenge is to reverse engineer the effects of that aging.
Martin Kemp: This is not just photoshopping it and messing around with the colors, which you and I could do and get tolerable results, but this is based on pigment analysis.
Narrator: First, Cotte determines how much the varnish has darkened and with his computer, peels it away. Next, he identifies what the color of each pigment would have looked like 500 years ago and recreates them to see the colors just as Leonardo did.
Cotte: For example, we know that Leonardo make the sky with white lead and lapis lazuli. So, we have a software that removes the wrong colors to obtain the genuine color.
Narrator: Then, pixel by pixel, Cotte restores those colors.
Suddenly, a greenish sky becomes brilliantly blue, and a bit of flush comes back to Lisa’s cheeks. Finally, as the French say, “voila!”
Kemp: Suddenly she doesn’t look like a submarine goddess. She looks as if she’s in the fresh air, which is just terrific.
Narrator: Cotte’s restoration has brought Lisa back to life, at least digitally closer to the state that Leonardo saw her.
Decoding da Vinci
Produced and directed by: Doug Hamilton
Digital Production: Ahmin Thornhill
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2019