Who was she? Author Dianne Hale weaves a fascinating tale to answer this question about, arguably, the most famous painting of all time. Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered is the result of in-depth research into both Leonardo di Vinci and his subject, Lisa Gherardini. Such research included on-the-ground “digging” into antique documents (records and letters) buried in massive files stored in Florence, Italy. Ms. Hale is a woman on a mission. And, that mission is to bring Leonardo’s subject, of whom we know little, into greater focus.
I debated whether to read this book, because I knew once I started reading, I risked wiping away much of the mystery and speculations that we’ve all enjoyed for so many years about the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile. But, I like historical detective work, so I decided to proceed.
I found Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered to be an engaging read, but not for the reasons I had anticipated. In seeking to piece together the chain of events leading to the painting of the Mona Lisa, and its “travels” after completion, Ms. Hale paints a vivid picture of life in Italy during the Renaissance – particularly in Florence. I love following a mystery while gaining greater historical context in the process. I learned more about Leonardo di Vinci. Enough details exist about him to allow the reader to sense his personality, his willfulness, his brilliance, and his capriciousness in flitting from one project to another while leaving unfulfilled promises and works in his wake. Lisa Gherardini, is a different story, however. While Ms. Hale has amassed admirable historical details of her life and her subsequent marriage to Francesco del Giocondo, a silk and cloth merchant, little exists to create any sense of her personality. Here Ms. Hale must stick to conjecture and supposition – lots of “What if?” Perhaps this is the unfortunate by-product of women having second-class status, and less attention being given to a housewife and mother in the chronicles of history.
I do recommend Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered. The book is an enjoyable history lesson, and it does give the hungry admirers of the Mona Lisa more on which to chew, and more on which to speculate. Because the author devotes equal time to Leonardo di Vinci, I walked away with a more complete picture of the artist. However, despite her steadfast detective work regarding Lisa Gherardini, the subject of the Mona Lisa remains a mystery – and why and how she was chosen to sit for this painting. Yes, I have additional historical “pieces” of information, but I am lacking the glue to put it all together into a picture with any sort of clarity. You might think this would be frustrating to me, but actually I was happy…happy still to be able to look at the Mona Lisa through a veil of mystery.