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Review: Biography illuminates, but 'Mona Lisa' still an enigma

Published Aug. 14, 2014

The woman with the famously mysterious smile has herself been a mystery for centuries. In Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, Dianne Hales doesn't discover much about the subject of the most famous painting in the world that we don't already know, but she does put Lisa del Giocondo's life in credible context, bulking up the scant verifiable details with the social and political history of her times and weaving into the book a parallel biography of the life of Leonardo da Vinci, who immortalized her.

When Lisa Gherardini was born in Florence in June 1479, Leonardo was 27 and already making a name for himself. He had been a star in Verrocchio's famous workshop and would soon come to the attention of Lorenzo de Medici, the great Florentine arts patron known as Il Magnifico.

The Gherardinis were an old and respected family but didn't have much money. Lisa's father married her to Francesco del Giocondo, a nouveau riche silk merchant, when she was 15 and he 29. She adopted his young son and gave birth to six of her own children, four of whom survived childhood, before she was 30. Francesco died in 1530, Lisa in 1542, and she chose to be buried at the convent in which she died, where her surviving daughter was a nun.

That's about it, information gleaned from church and city registries that Hales exhaustively combed, turning up little that was new. Much more is known about her husband and his participation in civic life because, back then, men had high profiles. Women were domestic creatures who may have exerted influence privately but rarely for public record.

Leonardo, as we all know, has been obsessively chronicled, beginning in his lifetime. A long paper trail of correspondence, notes (people hung on to anything from the hand of the divine Leonardo) and business transactions has allowed us to get a rounded sense of his life.

Still, there exist fewer details about the Mona Lisa than many of his other paintings, perhaps because it was a private commission and the del Giocondos, while affluent, weren't prominent nobles. We don't know how the commission came about (historians speculate that it might have had to do with Francesco's ties to the Medici and that Leonardo needed cash) or what, if anything, Leonardo was paid. Until recently, scholars couldn't say with certainty that Lisa was the subject. (A few still have questions.) Most agree the portrait was begun sometime in 1503, when she was about 24 and he was in his early 50s.

So, as she is wont to do throughout the book, Hales gets speculative. "Could have" and "may have," "if" and "perhaps" are qualifiers she sprinkles around too liberally for biography.

For example, in discussing the painting of the portrait, she writes, "Sitting just so before Leonardo's attentive gaze, Lisa may have sensed the qualities that made him appealing as a man as well as an artist. ... Perhaps in the harmony that a shared focus breeds, the maestro and his muse forged such an intense connection that all else seemed to fall away in a moment suspended in time."

It isn't purple prose, but it's trying.

Hales sometimes switches to the first person, inserting her own experiences into the story, which is often distracting and irrelevant. In the instance just quoted, Hales continues: "The notion of Lisa in a state of communion with a paternal figure makes me think of my own father. ... The memory brings a bittersweet smile to my lips."

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered is an interesting read for those who know little about the painting and want an entertaining account of the times in which it was created. Florence was undergoing great changes and would roil with political unrest, endure attacks from outside armies and witness the birth of a new era of art wrested from medievalism that came to be known as the Renaissance. Hales has many well-written passages about the painting itself, though the book suffers from an absence of illustrations.

She extends the life of the real Lisa in recounting the adventures of the painting, which has had quite a ride. Leonardo probably finished the painting several years after he began it but kept it with him until his death in 1519 in France, while under the patronage of King Francis I. It was already spoken of with reverence as a great masterpiece. Historians say he might have tinkered with it for years. We don't know if the del Giocondos ever saw the finished work, kept in contact with Leonardo or thought about the painting, but it was never in their possession.

It wound up back in Italy, probably brought there by the artist's longtime assistant, who died several years after Leonardo. Francis bought it and it hung it in his palace. It survived revolution and changing dynasties and tastes for centuries. The painting was regarded as one of Leonardo's greatest, but it didn't become stratospherically famous until its theft in 1911. The publicity after its loss and subsequent recovery two years later created world headlines, and hundreds of thousands flocked to see it. Today, it's probably the most copied, appropriated and parodied work of art in the world.

Hales ends on a poignant, wistful note, observing that no monument exists in Florence to Lisa, and that the buildings associated with her are mostly ruins. Her body in the convent was probably destroyed years ago when many were transferred to a common grave to make way for new development. Still, Hales indicates, that probably would have been fine with her. She might have smiled.

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.


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