If there’s one smile you’re sure to recognize, it’s the one worn by Mona Lisa. She smirks from the side of coffee mugs, tee shirts, post cards, and books around the world. She’s also one of the most debated, theorized, and discussed women in art history. Who was she? What was her relationship to her famous documentarian—Leonardo da Vinci? And most importantly, what’s behind that enigmatic smile?
A discovery made in 2005 put centuries of speculation to rest—for the most part. An expert at the University Library of Heidelberg discovered a note in the margin of a record book that revealed the possible identity of Mona Lisa. The note stated that Leonardo da Vinci was indeed working on a portrait of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo during the time of the painting’s creation, a woman many experts had speculated, but had never proven, may be the sitter.
Born in 1479, Lisa inhabited Renaissance Florence, during a time when stories of vendettas and beheadings ran rampant in the Italian city while wealthy rulers like the Medici’s struggled to maintain control. Yet, just as with the previously unidentified Mona Lisa, Gherardini remained a mystery. There just weren’t many written records on her life, aside from birth certificates, baptismal records, and the announcement of her death in 1542. So, veteran journalist and author, Dianne Hales, decided to make it her mission to investigate the life and times of Lisa Gherardini (and her relationship to Leonardo da Vinci) for her new book Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered.
Hales, who spent most of her career as a health writer, began studying Italian in her spare time after annual trips with her husband to the Mediterranean country. From there, she developed an interest in the history of the language and La Bella Lingua—a book that earned her Italian knighthood—was born.
While on one of Hales’s many trips to Florence, an art historian friend revealed that her residence was once home to Lisa Gherardini. “I was so taken by the idea that she was an Italian woman,” Hales told The Daily Beast. “I had been to Louvre and seen the [Mona Lisa], but it never crossed my mind to be interested in who she was as a person.”
Hales soon learned that at the age of 15, the young Florentine was married off to Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant almost twice her age. Her father had fallen on hard times and had failed to set up a dowry upon her birth—something of a risk in that age as women without dowries were considered unfit to wed and usually ended up in convents.
Looks were the young Lisa’s best chance for obtaining a comfortable life. Something in Lisa sparked Francesco’s desire, and he began to persistently pursue her. A deal was struck between Lisa’s father and Francesco: he would marry the young woman in exchange for a piece of the Gherardini family’s land.
According to Hales, Florence was a town ruled by and for men. “It was the least fortunate or unlucky place to be born female,” she said. “Woman had absolutely no rights.” They married exceptionally young and their mission in life was to procreate, even during a time when one in four women died in childbirth. But they had very rich family lives and were the center of the family. “When you look at Mona Lisa, what you see is a woman of confidence and competence and compassion.”
In Mona Lisa, Hales vividly describes the Renaissance world in which Lisa lived—how she dressed and dined, the marriage customs and sexual practices, street scenes and home life, while injecting her own opinions on how Lisa “might” have felt, behaved, and inhabited the Renaissance world. “The most exciting thing was actually archival research,” Hales described of holding books and records half a millennia old, “and discovering that [Lisa’s] family lived in violent times and were violent people.”
She was a “quintessential woman of her times,” Hales writes, “caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals. Descended from ancient nobles, she … [was] wed to a truculent businessman twice her age … gave birth to six children and died at age sixty-three. Lisa’s life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence, decades of war, rebellion, invasion, siege, and conquest—and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen.”
Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli, and Leonardo da Vinci all lived and worked in Florence at one point during their lives, sometimes simultaneously, which caused heated competitions and fierce rivalries—moments Hales captures in the book. Most importantly, she parallels Leonardo’s life with Lisa’s, investigating his boyhood, his sexuality, and the many projects across Italy that would change his life, while attempting to find the connection between the two—a relationship that would propel Lisa to became one of Florence’s most well-known women.
No matter how deep we dig into Lisa’s life, mysteries still surround the painting, even after the identity of its sitter has been solved. Recently, historians have embarked on a quest to find the remains of the woman with the famous smile. Towards the end of Lisa’s life, she had fully devoted herself to God and moved to the Sant’Orsola convent in Florence where she was eventually buried among other women. Opening the tomb last year, her skeleton has believed to be found. Hales is doubtful the project will be successful. After all, the abundant graves date back over 500 years.
“If we don’t find her, art historians can continue to speculate about who the model really was,” Silvano Vinceti, the art historian spearheading the excavation, said. Vinceti plans to perform DNA testing on the remains. If there is a match, a 3D reconstruction of her face would be a reality, possibly solving the mystery of her cryptic smile, the theories of which have ranged from missing teeth and congenital palsy to a medication reaction or syphilis.
“The only good thing I see coming of it,” Hales told The Daily Beast, “is that if he does somehow match up all the DNA and get the confirmation—that this skeleton belongs to Mona Lisa—that she will get a decent burial and a monument and some recognition in her home town.”
But, as more and more findings confirm that Lisa Gherardini is in fact the sitter, academic focus has shifted to other issues with this enigmatic portrait, like the possibility of a second version.
Within 50 years of Leonardo’s death, there were reports of a second Mona Lisa. “La Gioconda” just happened to be the one that made it’s way to the Louvre in 1815 after it entered the hands of France’s King Francis I after the artist’s death—he had been working for the King for some time.
The second portrait, examined by the Mona Lisa Foundation, bears a striking resemblance to the famous portrait. It was dated back to the same time period, and many scholars believe that only the hand of Leonardo could have created a work of its caliber. Even the descendants of Lisa Gherardini have heard tales of the family’s past possession of the mysterious second version.
“When I interviewed her great-granddaughters fifteen generations removed, they said they grew up always hearing the story that there was a painting that Leonardo had given the Giocondos.” They were told it stayed in the family’s possession until sometime in the 1800s, when the family ran out of money and it was sold.
For Hales, the biggest question that remains is why—why did Leonardo accept the commission to paint a seemingly ordinary Lisa Gherardini when he had other offers from nobles and royals.
“My own theory,” Hales revealed, “is when I went to Florence, my friend’s house was literally like thirty steps away from where Leonardo’s father lived. So, I think that they were not strangers and that Leonardo may have seen this girl when he visited his father. He may have even seen her growing up. I think there was something in her that intrigued him, something in her look and in her spirit as opposed to the money or to show off his brilliant innovations. That’s a question that will go on and on.”