Mona Lisa Location Mystery Solved, Geologist Claims

According to Ann Pizzorusso, the Leonardo masterpiece's disputed background landscape is that of Lecco, Italy.

May 15, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies



Dating back to 16th-century Italy, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous painting in the world. It is also one of the most mysterious. Centuries of intrigue have surrounded many aspects of the painting, from the enigmatic identity of the sitter to the hazy landscape in the background. Many historians believe the background landscape is only imaginary, while others have claimed it depicts various Italian landmarks. Recently, a U.S. geologist and longtime Leonardo scholar asserted her own claim that Lecco, Italy is the most likely setting for the Mona Lisa.


A Bridge, a Lake, and the Alps Point to Lecco, Says Pizzorusso

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503. Source: Louvre Museum.


At a recent geology conference in Italy, Ann Pizzorusso presented research that situates the Mona Lisa in Lecco, a town on the banks of Lake Como in northern Italy. Pizzorusso, both a professional geologist and a Renaissance art historian, noted that Leonardo da Vinci had actually visited the town during his lifetime. “We know from his notebooks that he spent a lot of time exploring the Lecco area and the territory further north,” she explained.


Guided by these notebooks, Pizzorusso followed the artist’s footsteps in and around the town of Lecco. She concluded that the bridge, pictured in the atmospheric haze beside the smiling figure’s shoulder, matches the 14th-century Azzone Visconti bridge in Lecco. Pizzorusso also claimed the mountains in the background are the southwestern Italian Alps that overlook the city, and the water resembles the real-life shoreline of nearby Lake Garlate.


“Nobody Talks About the Geology” of the Mona Lisa

Detail of the bridge and landscape in the background of Mona Lisa. Source: Louvre Museum.


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Pizzarusso’s research is not the first to claim the exact location of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa landscape. Previous theories focused especially on identifying the aforementioned bridge. However, according to Pizzorusso, “They all talk about the bridge and nobody talks about the geology.” She continued, “The arched bridge was ubiquitous throughout Italy and Europe and many looked very similar. It is impossible to identify an exact location from a bridge alone.”


As a geologist, Pizzorusso naturally turned her attention towards Leonardo’s delicately detailed rock formations. She noted that the rocks in the Mona Lisa are a grey-white color, matching the limestone naturally found in Lecco. Pizzorusso also pointed out that Lecco—unlike other locations proposed in the past—also has a lake. “Geologists don’t look at paintings and art historians don’t look at geology,” said Pizzorusso. “Art historians said Leonardo always used his imagination, but you can give this picture to any geologist in the world and they’ll say what I’m saying about Lecco. Even a non-geologist can now see the similarities.”


Some Experts Disagree with Pizzorusso’s Mona Lisa Theory

mona-lisa-louvre museum-leonardo-da-vinci
Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Source: Vanity Fair.


Art history experts are not all convinced by Pizzorusso’s Mona Lisa theory. Francesca Fiorani, a professor of art history, explained to The Art Newspaper, “Leonardo studied nature, mountains, rivers, rocks with great attention and an incredibly keen eye, and that knowledge informs his art, but the landscapes of his painting, including the landscape of the Mona Lisa, are his personal imaginary rendition of nature, not copies of actual landscapes. To claim otherwise means not understanding how Leonardo’s mind worked and how he painted.”


Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo da Vinci specialist, also debunked the idea that the Mona Lisa depicts any identifiable location. However, he noted to CBS that Leonardo “puts an enormous amount of poetic truth into painting, he puts a lot of scientific truth…and he, in a sense, invites the reader in to explore the picture.”

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.