Is there really anything hidden in the old masters, or is this just the result of an overactive imagination? The answer is that there is far more than just the superficial painting to look at, and that a multitude of different techniques were used to hide it.
For example, the painting above is extensively annotated, identifying the man in armour as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; the page on the left as his son the future King Philip of Spain (of Spanish Armada infamy); and the African page as Salai, the son of Ali.
The first two are easy to confirm merely by looking at other portraits of the characters in question, but the most blatant of the many secrets of this painting lies elsewhere.
Cut the painting down the middle, and mount the two halves the other way round, with the far left edge hard up against the far right, and something remarkable, and totally irrefutable happens. The tree on the far left flows perfectly into the tree on the far right. The two halves of the tree were painted as one: the far left of the painting and the far right once joined, and the tree was then split down the middle, after being painted, each half ending up as far as could be from the other. The sky was darkened later over the tower, but the original pale sky of the tree peeps through.
So why was the tree painted all at the same time, and then split? Because something was written in it before it was cut in half, something the patron could not be allowed to see, something impossible to read unless we cut and splice. Hidden faintly in the structure of the foliage, and defying us to discover it, is the word ‘sesso’… Italian for ‘sex’. Can you see any of the letters?
Although very hard to make out, the word is written several times over, and it is being spoken by the face in the dark cloud (with his nose in the tower – see him?).
The painting was not just a portrait, it was a denunciation. A denunciation of Philip for his sexual abuse of the slave boy on the right. And that is why the boy looks out at us with the expression he does.
Now, if you knew and loved Salai (and why would you not – the artist was his father), would you stay quiet when commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor to paint a portrait of him and his son? Of course not. But would you taunt them openly, and risk being murdered for the insult? No. So what to do? Speak out, but hide the condemnation so it looks down on them every hour of every day from their palace wall. There is at least a little catharsis in that.
The painting tells a bigger story, though, and there is much more here to find. Look carefully, and you will find other faces – in the foliage, in the costumes, in the earth. And names, too, but that is not the point here. The only point here is the existence of what is called ‘distant edge camouflage’, nothing else. It is that a hidden message exists, not what it says.
Paris Bordone, while this may now well change, is not recognised today as having been a major artist, and this was not a major work, so it could be that he was the exception, and that his distant edge camouflage had another purpose. So let’s look instead at a popularly acclaimed work by a popularly acclaimed artist: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo.
Leonardo used the same technique. Cut the Mona Lisa down the middle and patch the opposite sides together, and the first thing we see is a huge ‘E’ staring out at us, split right down the divide. Well, so what. It could be a fluke – just a chance arrangement that circumstance put there, much like that teddy bear our child saw in a cloud yesterday, right?
Were that the case, then we would need to ask how circumstance might also have composed the entire ‘E’ out of smaller (and even more surreptitious) ones – with three medium sized ‘E’s, each obscured at the end of the three crossbars of the big ‘E’. And why, furthermore, each of these medium ‘E’s was made up of yet smaller ones. Leonardo was confirming that it was indeed an ‘E’, and for convenience we call this ‘fractal confirmation’: a big letter filled with ever smaller versions of itself.
The question of why a big ‘E’ is there, is by the by. The point is that it is there. And for those who are curious, look just above and just below. There are medium sized ‘S’s there, too, each also spanning the abyss between the two sides of the painting. And having read the word ‘Sess…’, we then encounter the two dark half ellipses either side of the Mona Lisa, with no other apparent reason in life, but now forming what looks rather like a dark face. Not only a face, but also the ‘O’ to complete our ‘sesso’. (And what indeed would sesso be without the ‘O’ at the end?). It would seem that our preoccupation with the subject is far from new.
If you look, you will also see that the outlines of the ‘E’ and the other letters are confused by changes of hue and tonality, changes that don’t correspond to its outline. This is a further type of camouflage, this time referred to as ‘colour confusion’.
But there is yet another sort of disguise in the Mona Lisa that is very common, and very effective. It has remained hidden for 500 years so do not for a moment think its messages will just pop out at us. It requires work, a new way of seeing. Why? Because it plays with our minds. It works because it overloads the very limited working memory we humans are equipped with.
Working memory can cope with only four chunks of information at a time. Add a fifth one and one of the others will be thrown away. Put a letter on a plain and contrasting background and it will stand out. Break it into pieces and lay it on a background strewn with similar pieces, and we will struggle. Too many chunks. We may, with effort, identify one letter, but then, when we start to search for the next one, we go into memory overload, and the first letter vanishes. This is what Leonardo used to hide his signature – it is just above the bridge in the background on the right – but hopelessly lost unless you know exactly how to look.
There is a way around this memory overload. All we need do is ink in each letter as it is identified, thus releasing memory to identify the next one… Fill a letter in and the next will ‘pop’ out. So, looking at image 1, below, top left, we may suspect there is something there, but it is resolutely indecipherable. We then look for just one letter, an easy one to decode. I chose an ‘L’, and we can see it in the tiny white box in image 2.
Only when we fill it in do we then stand any chance of then seeing the little ‘E’ tucked inside it. And then, looking a little to the right, you may notice a tiny ‘O’ appear, which we fill in in image 5. Then, with our extra memory capacity, the next letter (an ‘N’) hints at its presence (image 6, to the right of image 5). The ‘A’ is tough to pick out, but it is there… and so on, we draw in letter by letter until we have the whole of Leonardo’s signature, including the ‘da Vinci’, and the year 1512AD when the masterpiece was painted. Step by painful step we can reveal it; but no pain, no gain. (If you are having trouble at this size, click the image to enlarge it.)
It is not only words we may notice in the Mona Lisa, though. Pan out (see image 1 in the detail below), and in images 2 and 3, I became aware of a well known face and beard to the right of the letters. The words we so laboriously inked in before, we then suddenly realize, are sprouting from his mouth. Do you recognise him? He’s there, unretouched in image 3… and – in case you are having trouble – in image 4 with his basic outline drawn in.
Who is he? Well, he writes ‘io’ on his hat, and that is Italian for ‘me’! It is Leonardo himself.
Did you feel anything change? Art is a way of conveying feelings, and for many, the experience of discovering that Leonardo drew this specifically trying to amuse us, creates a bond with him. We feel he did it with us personally, and after this, he will never be quite the same again in our feelings for him. He laughed with us, heart to heart, mind to mind.
Lastly we can expose text by removing either alternate letters, or just part of the letter, and letting the rest peep through. Above we find a mysterious place, and below, he tells us that the lady is Elisabetta ,which we might have guessed since her name is ‘Lisa’); that she was born in 1468; and that she was not Lisa Ghirardelli, but Elisabetta van Eyck.
And so, we may argue about what the hidden messages say, but does any doubt still remain that there is clandestine material in his work? A door has opened to a once secret world.