Advertisement
  1. Books

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 lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Candice Anderson, left, and Alsace Walentine, co-owners of Tombolo Books, rearrange books as attendees of the Times Festival of Reading leave the University Student Center behind them. [Jack Evans | Times]
    The shop plans to open next to Black Crow on First Ave. S before the new year.
  2. Author Ace Atkins JOE WORTHEM  |  Joe Worthem
    In the 47th book about the Boston investigator, he’s searching for a starlet gone missing. | Review
  3. Julie Andrews, right, and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, take fans' questions in a Q&A at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 13. JAY CRIDLIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The stage and screen icon came to Clearwater to discuss her new memoir ‘Home Work’ and a wide range of other topics.
  4. The book cover for Jean Fruth's "Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin." Sports Publishing
    Actor Maulik Pancholy will also talk about his debut novel for kids at Oxford Exchange.
  5. Meg Tilly Penguin Random House
    In her own romance thrillers, she aims for both darkness and light.
  6. Brad, Yadina and Xavier share adventures in "Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum" on PBS. PBS
    The author brings his bestselling biographies for kids to TV with ‘Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum.’
  7. Tom Petty performs in 1999. Author and journalist Bill DeYoung's interviews with the musician appear in "I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews." PAUL WARNER  |  AP
    Journalist and author Bill DeYoung gathers some of his favorite interviews in ‘I Need to Know.’
  8. Times illustration Lisa Merklin
    At the 2019 Times Festival of Reading, authors will have stories to tell for everyone.
  9. Author Ellen LaCorte Paul Sirochman
    In the author’s debut thriller, a random meeting between two women changes both their lives.
  10. Julie Andrews will appear in conversation at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Nov. 13. Courtesy of Andrew Eccles
    The 84-year-old Hollywood icon will discuss her new autobiography this week at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement