Bobbio as the background of the Mona Lisa painting

In January 2011 international websites such as The Guardian or Daily Mail reported the thesis exposed by art historian Carla Glori which recognised the landscape of Bobbio as the background of one of the most famous paintings in the world.

Carla Glori’s research will be published in 2012 by Edizioni Cappello in a book entitled LEONARDO – Decifrazioni e scoperte – Volume primo: La Gioconda. In memoria di Bianca.

What is the origin of this new thesis? We asked it to the author in a short interview.


Carla, when did you personally get to know Val Trebbia and how?

My research about the Mona Lisa painting led me to Val Trebbia.  I visited it about two and a half years ago to verify some hypothesis over the location of the background of the famous Leonardo’s painting. I had never been there before.

The San Colombano monastery in the center of Bobbio

Bobbio impressed me because of its ancient charm and its really peculiar history. In my case its charm was further enhanced by the mystery linked to the castle, the bridge and the landscape belonging to the background of Leonardo’s painting in general. Unfortunately the trips I made to Val Trebbia so far were dictated by professional reasons, so I did not have the chance to explore the villages around Bobbio but I hope I can do it as soon as the book is published. In the meantime I could taste the local cuisine and meet the friendly local population. I also found it surprising how many locals were deeply involved with cultural and historical studies about the area: it is something I never experienced anywhere else. The contribution of some of these local scholars proved really crucial to my research.

Are you planning to visit also the villages of Alta Val Trebbia?

I hope next summer I will be able to – once I have some free time– explore the whole valley and its wild nature, not just the hidden areas around Bobbio but all the other villages too, whose history I know a little but only through what I read in books.

The thesis you are presenting in your book, about Bobbio being the landscape featured as the background for the Mona Lisa painting, was reported by both the national and international press, although the final result of your research will be available as of 2012. How do you think your study will be received by the academic community in the world?

There are several “thesis” about the identity of Mona Lisa and academics never agreed on this point. There is an accredited identification based on a work by Vasari but it was put under scrutiny too several times in the past, so listing the whole range of possible identities would be quite a long thing to do. In Italy for example, at the beginning of the 20th century Benedetto Croce and Adolfo Venturi identified the lady with Costanza d’Avalos: recently – to mention a famous example- Lilian Schwartz carried out some computer simulations to show the resemblance of Leonardo’s face to that of Mona Lisa, thus claiming the painting was a self-portrait of the artist.

Is Mona Lisa a mirror for Leonardo?

As far as I am concerned, I tried to offer a coherent thesis on the basis of seven coordinates in the background of the painting, which coincide with existing, or historically proven, elements together with the biography of the lady depicted in the artwork, which is Bianca Giovanna Sforza. I believe this multidisciplinary approach, which includes also some field work, is the real novelty together with a critical analysis of the masterpiece from a “feminine” point of view. However the landscape itself is the biggest surprise, as it had always been considered a purely artistic creation so far. I do not know how my thesis will be interpreted by the academic environment but if the identities suggested by Croce or Venturi, just to mention two famous names, were not accepted back then it would be arrogant to think that my theory, for how revolutionary it can be, would be enthusiastically welcomed…probably the opposite is more likely to happen!

The bridge featured behind the Mona Lisa is the one Carla Glori associates with Ponte Vecchio in Bobbio

However it makes me feel better to know that my research was serious and accurate. Being an independent researcher can be a weak point but a strong one as well: it gives you the freedom to go against the mainstream and this would not be possible otherwise. My work is honest and I want to prove what I consider to be an historical fact: this is already enough for me.

You surely visited Ponte Vecchio in Bobbio and the old town too as part of your research: what did you think of the bridge from an historical and architectonical point of view?

The bridge is absolutely peculiar due to the several collapses of its structure that contributed to the creation of the legends around it. The intensity of the floods of the Trebbia must have been something we cannot even imagine nowadays. The terrible one in 1452 was described by Ripalta in his chronicles. The one in 1472, an extraordinary year for good and evil for Bobbio given the miracle of Madonna dell’Aiuto, was just as destructive. The big arch of the Spessa kept on falling down. In Leonardo’s painting too you can see, if you look closely enough, that the arch on the right is damaged, which reflects the state of the bridge as of 1472, when it was left standing the way it was without being repaired. Maybe the inhabitants of Bobbio don’t know that the bridge, which originally had six arches, also featured a small staircase on the side facing the city, hidden behind the left shoulder of Mona Lisa: this is quite a unique feature and Leonardo might have hidden it on purpose not to reveal the location he painted. The architecture of the bridge is the result of the restauration works done until today: arches were added and this gave the bridge its unique and unusual appearance together with its legends.

Ponte Vecchio, or Gobbo, crossing the river Trebbia close to Bobbio

Which part of the old town did you like the most?

The beautiful churches of Bobbio have a unique charme too. However, the part I liked the most was the castle, but this is easily explained by saying that I consider it the “view point” for the location of the background for Mona Lisa. However we cannot know what its structure or height were exactly towards the end of 1400, the period when I think the work on the portrait started, because the castle was destroyed at the beginning of 1500 and then rebuilt. During my visit to some areas of the park and in the room at the top floor, I had the feeling it was very old, but this is a subjective feeling.

The Malaspina castle in Bobbio

Are you planning any lectures, presentations or meetings in Val Trebbia once the book is published?

I am still finishing the drafts and rewriting some passages so at the moment I cannot think of promotional events for the book. I will hold some meetings in 2012 and next summer too and I will surely include Bobbio in the cities I will visit. Other cities will be Milan, Genoa, Piacenza and probably some cities in the center-south of Italy as, we all know it, Mona Lisa goes well beyond geographical borders! I personally want to focus on small, provincial towns where the interest of the population is genuine and stimulates me to go on, rather than on official or prestigious locations. It is in the province that you find non-conformist intellectuals and very cultivated people.

Do you think Val Trebbia can offer you further poetic, artistic or literary inspiration for your future work?

It surely offers many and varied points for reflection both from an artistic and historical perspective. However at the moment my priority would be a holiday in Val Trebbia.  Next year, after the publication of La Gioconda. In memoria di Bianca, I am planning to write another book, which will also be published by Ugo Cappello, about a study on one of Leonardo’s drawings. It will complement the book I am writing now. Then I would take a break from my research and finally concentrate on the novel I wanted to write for twenty years now…but this is really another story.  


The thesis presented by Carla Glori can be partly read in Italian on the “work in progress” website

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