This is a fascinating book that recreates the life of the real Mona Lisa, Lisa Gherardini, through historical records set against what we know about the lives of young women in Renaissance Florence. It interweaves the journey of Lisa’s family through the ages and her early life, marriage and death with wider Florentine politics and the career of the man who immortalized her.
Until I saw the Mona Lisa ‘in the flesh’ I didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. I just thought it was a nice portrait of an Italian bird with a wonky grin. However during my first trip the Louvre in June 2015, after my other half and I had London-elbowed (technical term) our way to the front of the horde of selfie-stick wielding tourists papping La Gioconda (not a euphemism), Lisa and I shared a moment. No, really.
In defiance of the aforementioned horde of tourists, and in particular defiance of the grown woman who almost knocked my glasses off as if we were teenagers at a One Direction concert where Zayn had made a comeback and Harry was doing the old naked air guitar routine, I stood in front of the Mona Lisa for a good twenty minutes, London elbows doing their business, taking my time with the lady and cancelling out the surrounding Louvre-chaos (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve been there).
And that’s when it happened. I made a point of looking her right in the eye, woman to woman across time and lands, a bit like I do when people won’t give up their seat for old people on the tube but with more sister to sister kindness, and – I know my inner hippy is showing – she looked right back. You may say she doesn’t really have a choice, stuck behind bullet proof glass in the most famous museum in the world, but, as the author Dianne Hales reports a similar feeling, I have decided that this actually did happen. In that moment – no, really, I’m not making this up – I saw the real woman who deserved to have her own story told rather than to be merely gazed at through the eyes of the man who painted her. This book does that, excellently, and I would therefore thoroughly recommend it. It also teaches you a lot about the gargantuan nature of Da Vinci’s brain (I suspect he was an alien), the messy nature of Florentine politics, Renaissance sex tips, and includes some juicy stories about naughty nuns.
After my spooky experience in the Louvre, I’ve thought about all the other people who have been similarly eyeballed from the depths of the Renaissance over the years, and was touched to find out that this included my late Uncle Dave who, as an 18 year old on a trip to Paris in the late 1960s, made a similar pilgrimage. Now my Uncle definitely embraced his inner hippy and I like to think, as the thoughtful and sensitive man that he was, that he had the same ‘moment’. I would love to have asked him.