The inventor is standing in the middle of a display on the famous painting at the Da Vinci – The Genius exhibition in Woodmead, and chats happily about his work despite having spent the day telling and retelling his story to curious journalists after a long flight from France.
“The Louvre asked me to photograph the Mona Lisa. Knowing that I was the only person to be allowed to do this increased my fascination with it,” he says.
Cotte invented a 240 megapixel camera that has been used to unveil 25 new facts about the world’s most mysterious portrait.
“The camera uses the physical quality of light to go inside the layers of paint, so you peel them away like an onion. It was an incredible opportunity to understand the work of Leonardo Da Vinci,” Cotte explains.
It is believed that Da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for close to 10 years. At the time of his death, the artist still considered it to be incomplete. Cotte’s camera has revealed many of the changes that were made, like details on the sleeves of the dress worn and areas of the chair the subject is sitting in.
“He was a genius. He put a lot of work into the painting and made a lot of changes. The goal of this man was to achieve perfection. This is why there are only 10 of his paintings. Each one is a masterpiece,” Cotte says.
Cotte has also photographed Da Vinci’s Lady With An Ermine, and has spent many tireless hours delving deeper into the painter’s style.
“On his other paintings, you can count the hairs on the eyelashes and eyebrows. He painted them on by one. This was the reason I found it impossible that this man painted the Mona Lisa without.
At the most one could say that it might have been the fashion at the time to not have eyebrows, but not eyelashes,” Cotte says.
Cotte believes that the eyelashes and eyebrows were removed accidentally.
“I think that Leonardo used a new technique for the eyebrows where he painted with varnish, and someone in a museum cleaned the painting and removed them.”
Creating the multispectral camera, and the work done on Da Vinci’s paintings is a labour of love for Cotte, who has brought a host of information to the world about the Renaissance hero. It’s clear from how he tells the story that he’s a stickler for details.
“On 19 October 2004 I was asked to photograph the Mona Lisa. I started at 1pm and finished around 3pm. I then presented the first results to The Louvre around 6pm. They then asked me to digitise it again, but just the face. I only finished that at 8am the next day!” he says with a chuckle.
Cotte admits that his favourite secret about the painting is actually one of the first that he uncovered.
“There was always a mystery around the position of her hands. It was the first time the hands in Leonardo’s work were positioned in this way. The hands seemed to have no specific meaning.
However, Leonardo painted the body, and what is in the mind. I discovered that Mona Lisa was holding a cover on her knee, so her hand was actually doing something. Her wrist holds the cover over her stomach, and we realised that she was covering her stomach in the way a mother hides her body. One little thing revealed so much. The smile has always been so famous, and we realised that this was the smile of a mother, showing pride, happiness and kindness.”
When asked if he feels a certain affinity to Da Vinci because, like the artist himself, he has created something that has revolutionised public opinion, Cotte chuckles.
“It’s difficult to make a comparison between me and Da Vinci. I guess our goal is the same – we both pursue perfection.”