Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered
Dianne Hales (Simon & Schuster 2014, Hardcover) 317 pages inc. index and footnotes $28 cover price
Even so, the rituals of courtship offered girls of the merchant and moneyed classes a rare chance to shine – beginning with the first time a suitor came calling. Wooing a beloved from the street below her balcony wasn't a dramatic literary device that Shakespeare invented for his Romeo and Juliet, I learn, but an old Italian tradition. Soon after exchanging a formal handshake with his future father-in-law, Francesco del Giocondo may have made his way along Via Ghibellina and turned on what is now Via de' Pepi to stand below the Gherardini windows.
Well one certainly hopes so, as the prominent merchant and widower was about to marry a fifteen year old girl who in turn was going to grow into perhaps the most famous face in the world, as captured by Leonardo da Vinci in his painting of Lisa del Giocondo née Gherardini. Thank heavens that when Francesco decided to order a nice present for the wife he didn't just pick up a box of chocolates or the art world would be short one masterpiece.
A reader must approach Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered with the same understanding that its author makes clear; there will be equal servings of historical fact alongside intelligent speculation within the pages. The above quoted example contains those elements. This is what people within a certain milieu of sixteenth century Florentine life did, so therefore if Francesco followed tradition he would have done the same. It's rather like constructing a Venn diagram of known elements with the convergence of the spheres creating a biography of the model wife known to us as the Mona Lisa.
More than that though, in a properly done history such as this, the subject and his or her surroundings have a sort of conversation with one another with each enhancing and elaborating on the one. As such, following the path of both the Gherardini and del Giocondo families expands and makes tangible the often spectacularly bloody events within the times of the Medici. Dianne Hales' book is well worth reading if only for the section discussing the brief and terrorizing reign of the friar Girolamo Savonarola in Florence. Here was religious fundamentalism in Catholic form, with his ordering of – yes – the Bonfire of the Vanities where decadent clothes, art and other such objects of decadence were burnt in cleansing sacrifice. Well, the Florentines along with the Borgia pope Alexander VI got tired of this soon enough and so in a sentence of perfectly macabre irony Savonarola and his followers were burnt to death and their ashes dumped in the Arno.
Forgive me if that anecdote is rather blood-thirsty, yet that is the richness of narrative which in turn makes Hales' book stand out amongst the stacks of art history texts produced today. Hales also injects herself into the book, allowing the reader to follow along her search for the truths about Mona Lisa. That can be a dangerous device and now and then it can get to be a bit much – observing that a young girl in the present day has the same sort of smile as her many generations removed ancestor smacks of ginning up the story – however it does lead to a heightened interest in the work of an art historian. Yes, there is a thrill in seeing nots, journals and letters written half a millennium ago and I for one don;t mind reading about what that moment was like.
The one thing I truly missed was an illustration section in the book. Particularly when discussing Leonardo, his other portraits and work, as well as variations on the Mona Lisa which may or may not have been painted by him, I did find myself Googling and leaving web pages open so I could follow along the brushstrokes as it were. I really hope that at some point a premium edition of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered is produced by the publisher with full colour plates included. Until then, keep your laptop or tablet at the ready. In the meanwhile, this is un libro intelligente delizioso.
Be seeing you.