Last year, one of my favourite ‘Like The Prose’ challenges was when I was asked to write about a painting. (I chose Seurat’s ‘L’Apres-Midi Sur la Grande Jatte’.) Since then, I’ve written several other pieces inspired by paintings, trying to imagine what might have been going through the mind of Wladyslaw Podkowinski when he painted ‘Frenzy of Exultations’ or recreating Lowry’s home life and thinking what might have inspired him to paint the way he did. Today’s piece focuses on perhaps one of the most famous paintings in the world: da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Here, I imagine what life might have been like for the woman who was reputed to have been the model for the painting and I create my own reason for La Gioconda’s enigmatic smile.
Florence, in the Year of Our Lord, 1503:
I have been commissioned to paint a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife, Lisa, once she is delivered of their second child. This is an honour indeed, for Mona Lisa is a Gherardini by birth and both families, although not wealthy, are well respected. However, the lady is not suited to her current condition for her face and hands are presently puffy and she finds it hard to heave herself from the couch on which she lies. Her little boy, Piero, is five and an angelic little cherub too! Signor del Giocondo suggested that I might paint his wife as the Madonna, adding both the children to the portrait, but I respectfully declined. It may be fashionable for other painters to pander thus to their patrons, but Mona Lisa is not the most beautiful of women, nor the most ethereal looking, and I would be doing both her and her husband a disservice were I to present them with an idealised version of the good lady which bears no resemblance to reality.
Leonardo sighed as he regarded the woman in front of him. Lisa Gherardini had never been classically beautiful, but the dark circles under her eyes and the extra weight from her recent childbearing only accentuated the plainness of her appearance. Quickly, he sketched the outline of her face and figure. She had chosen to sit with her right hand folded over her left as a symbol of fidelity to her husband – not that any other man would look with longing at the lank hair and discontented expression. He knew that she was finding motherhood difficult this second time around – she had said as much when she placed the baby in its basket at her feet, explaining that they could not afford a wet-nurse and that she would need to suckle little Camilla if she cried. When Leonardo remarked that the child seemed remarkably placid, Lisa told him that the infant had spent most of the night screaming, refusing to be quieted. “Piero did not cause such trouble!” she said despairingly. “Perhaps if I had not lost the one before this … It seems I am out of practice at tending a new-born babe.”
He knew that she had been only fifteen when she married Francesco: she was her husband’s third wife, just as her own mother had been her father’s third. Still, Gherardini was an old name and del Giocondo had done well for himself there, even if her family was not as rich as his own. Mind you, her father’s second wife had been sister to Francesco’s first wife, so Leonardo suspected the tenuous family connection had played a part in the match: with four daughters to marry, Antonmaria di Noldo Gherardini must have been grateful for any offers that would take one of them off his hands.
Two of the other daughters had also married, and the youngest, Ginevra, was staying with her sister to help with the children. Leonardo had caught sight of the girl several times: she moved with an easy grace so different to Lisa’s waddle. Her hands when she had opened the door to him had been pale and slender; he looked once more at Lisa’s swollen fingers and knew he could not paint them as they were.
That was when the idea occurred to him: why not let Ginevra sit for him instead? He knew he could not suggest this to Francesco – it was tantamount to telling him that his wife was ugly! – but if the girl was willing, what was to stop her coming to his house so that he could use her as the model for the hands and face that were proving to be so elusive?
He stared once more at la Gioconda. Dark circles were appearing on the bodice of her gown – a sign that her child would soon be waking to be fed. As if on cue, the tiny mouth opened and a thin wail issued from the basket.
“I can see you will be busy for the next hour or so,” Leonardo said, hurriedly gathering his pencils and sketch pad together. “Perhaps if I come back later in the week? I think I have enough details here already to begin work.”
He excused himself from the light and airy sala and began to make his way towards the front door. A gentle murmuring reached his ears. He paused, realising that Ginevra must be teaching little Piero how to read. Retracing his steps, he peeped in through the slightly ajar door of another room where the little boy sat learning a, albero; b, banana; c, cane. For a moment, he just stared at them both. Sunlight was streaming through the large windows of the sala da pranzo, golden glints dancing in Ginevra’s dark hair while she took her nephew’s chubby forefinger and helped him trace the letters. She looked utterly serene.
“Mi scusi!” he muttered as she looked up.
“Ti sei perso, Signor?” Are you lost? Then, catching sight of his sketchpad, she smiled. “Signor da Vinci! Have you finished my sister’s portrait already?”
“If I might ask a favour, Signorina …” Leonardo looked meaningfully at the little boy.
“Piero, go and play. In a little while, we will learn dadi and elefante.”
Leonardo ruffled the child’s hair absently as he squeezed past him.
“As you know, I have been commissioned to paint your sister’s portrait,” the painter began, coming straight to the point. “However, she is not looking her best – she is obviously overtired – and I thought that it would be less stressful for her if I came here as infrequently as possible.”
“I do what I can to help with the children,” Ginevra said, a little defensively.
“I do not doubt that for one minute.” Leonardo paused. “But there are other ways you could help. Does Mona Lisa allow you any time to yourself?”
“I take a walk every afternoon.”
The girl’s eyes were large and luminous in an otherwise unremarkable face. For a moment, he allowed himself to look at her as an artist, his mind thinking of the colours he would mix to create her flesh tones, noting the length of her eyelashes, the delicate line of her neck.
“Would you be willing to pose for me yourself?” he asked her. “Your sister’s face and hands … they are not easy.”
“You wish to paint me as well as her?” She sounded puzzled. Then, as his meaning dawned on her, her eyes widened in surprise. “You mean instead of? But my brother-in-law would never …”
“He doesn’t need to know,” Leonardo said quietly. “It will be our little secret. You and your sister are not dissimilar: you share the same colouring, the same shape of the mouth. I can make you enough like Lisa was before …”
Before she grew tired and fat, he wanted to say, but he deemed it prudent not to say the words.
“She is only six and twenty,” the girl said reflectively. “Having children has aged her. I would rather remain childless than look like that when I am older.”
“How old are you now?” he asked curiously.
“Seventeen. Two years older than Lisa was when she married Francesco. My father is convinced that I am already an old maid!”
“Seventeen is not so old,” Leonardo told her, feeling suddenly aware of the rheumatism brought on by reaching half a century. “Two of my sisters are older than you but have no husbands yet.”
“They might not find any,” she told him gravely. “Men like younger wives who can bear them children. Francesco had two other wives before he married my sister.”
He had never contemplated marriage himself, but he knew he found younger people more aesthetically pleasing than their older counterparts. Youth held so much promise!
“Will you come?” he asked again. “It need not take long – just the hands and face.”
“Yes,” she said slowly, surprising him with her answer. “I would like to know that my life has a purpose.”
The following afternoon, she arrived promptly. He was glad that it was summer and that the room was flooded with natural light.
“Sit there,” he instructed. “I want to see the effect of sunbeams on your skin.”
He had painted many women in his time, but this portrait would be different. Ginevra was still fresh and innocent: could he capture that quality on canvas? Of course, he would have to age her up a little if he wanted Francesco to recognise his wife, but he would retain the slender fingers and the large, lustrous eyes and the smile … He froze suddenly, aware that he had never seen an expression quite like this before. Ginevra sat staring into the distance, an enigmatic smile playing on her lips. I know something you don’t! her smile seemed to say; and, Wouldn’t you like to know what I am thinking right now!
For a moment, he gazed, spellbound. There was mischief in that smile and serenity and joy. It really was remarkable. Grabbing his paintbrush, he began to make the most of the light.
Six months later, Ginevra told him that she was to be married. “It’s someone Francesco knows,” she announced as she sat with her hands in her lap, waiting for Leonardo to put the finishing touches to her knuckles.
“I’m assuming he’s closer to your brother-in-law in age than he is to you,” the artist remarked, busily applying paint with the lightest of brush strokes.
“He’s old,” the girl agreed, “– about thirty, I think. But his face is not displeasing and he has money. I am to be the second wife – his last one died of some illness or other, leaving a little girl behind. I know Marco di Foscini is hoping I will give him a son.”
Da Vinci stared at the impassive face before him, wondering how long it would be before its youth was stolen by marriage and motherhood. It mattered not: Ginevra’s enigmatic smile had been captured for posterity, along with her slender, white fingers. One day, he would have to show the canvas to del Giocondo and his wife, but he thought the secret would be safe: he had added just enough of Lisa to hide his model’s true identity.
“I wish you a happy marriage,” he said solemnly as Ginevra rose to leave.
Turning towards him, she kissed him on each cheek, almost, he thought, as if he were her father. “Thank you, Leonardo.” The mysterious smile was back on her face. “If I produce a son, I will name him after you.”
That, he thought as she left, would be his legacy, for sons had sons after them and names were handed down from generation to generation, but the unfinished painting on his easel would quickly be forgotten.