Early on a spring morning in 2011, I threaded my way through a maze of lanes in the Oltrarno to the street where Lisa Gherardini, the woman generally believed to be the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, was born. Via Sguazzo lived up to its name, derived from a word for ‘wallow.’ Five centuries after its residents had complained about the stench from a clogged municipal drain, the alley still stank. Graffiti smeared the grimy houses. Trash huddled in corners.
The contrast between this fetid lane and the sublime symbol of Western civilization that the Mona Lisa has become stunned me. I wanted to know more about the flesh-and-blood woman who, now, is almost invisible in her hometown. ‘Inhabit her neighborhoods,’ an art historian advised. First, I had to find them. I started at the Florence State Archive, which houses 46 miles of ledgers, records and deeds. There, I found the oldest book I had ever touched: a 16th-century family history of the Gherardini. With the help of Lisa Kaborycha, an American historian who teaches in Florence, I deciphered tales of the audacious knights and robber barons who once plundered merchants’ convoys and lorded over a wide swath of the Chianti area. Forced to move within Florence’s walls, they battled with rival clans for power and glory—but lost both by the time of Lisa Gherardini’s birth in 1479.
Her father Antonmaria Gherardini had married twice; both of his wives died in childbirth. I discovered another thread of Lisa’s story from Ludovica Sebregondi, an art historian and curator who befriended me. Over a dinner at her home, she casually mentioned that Lisa’s mother, Antonmaria’s third wife, had grown up in this very building.
Intrigued, I followed a typically Italian network of friends and friends and friends to reach Giuseppe Pallanti, an archival sleuth who has devoted countless hours to tracing the Gherardini’s paper and parchment trail. Atop a rooftop terrace in the Oltrarno, he marked “X”s on a tourist map to indicate the key locations of Lisa’s life, beginning with fetid via Sguazza. Girls like Lisa Gherardini, I learned from Renaissance historians, had only two career options: marry or enter a nunnery. Despite the lack of a large dowry, Antonmaria Gherardini managed to find a husband for his Lisa: Francesco del Giocondo, a widower with an infant son. The entrepreneurial silk merchant emerges from his family’s business records as avaricious and quarrelsome, pouncing on profits wherever he could find them—‘a typical Florentine businessman,’ says Pallanti.
Crinkled map in hand, I traced the route 15-year-old Mona Lisa would have traveled in March 1495 on the day of her wedding to Francesco to the del Giocondo family home on via della Stufa. On the extensively renovated street, a city engineer directed me to number 23, the probable site of the home Francesco bought in 1503 for Lisa and their growing family. Lisa would give birth to six children, three sons and three daughters; two died in childhood.
Leonardo da Vinci may have met Mona Lisa’s husband in piazza Santissima Annunziata, where he took up residence in 1500 after a French invasion of Milan; Leonardo’s father, who handled the church’s commercial enterprises, could have introduced his acclaimed son to Francesco del Giocondo, who provided linens and occasional loans. When I asked a loquacious friar about Leonardo’s stay, he whisked me to a tranquil courtyard and pointed to a suite of rooms where, he claimed, Leonardo began his portrait of Lisa.
Behind Santissima Annunziata’s ornate main altar, I entered the faded private chapel housing the del Giocondo crypt. Mona Lisa does not lie there with her husband. She chose to be buried at Sant’Orsola, where she spent the final years of her life. Now a blighted ruin, the convent gained worldwide notoriety in 2012 when self-styled ‘bones-hunters’ excavated skeletons in an ongoing attempt to identify Mona Lisa’s remains (see more about this at theflr.net/otiyjm).
I gained a sense of Mona Lisa as a woman from her contemporary descendants: the real-life princesses Natalia and Irina Guicciardini Strozzi. Charming and effervescent, they chatted at the family winery near San Gimignano about their pride in being connected ‘by something in our blood’ to the famous beauty, a fiorentina like them. ‘The people of Florence are like their palazzi,’ observed Natalia. ‘Their exteriors seem cold and formidable, but inside you find the most wonderful treasures.’Mona Lisa’s portrait also may seem a cold and lonely work of art, but in her story and her city, I found wonderful treasures indeed.
See the video
Discover five facts you may not know about the real Mona Lisa at theflr.net/monalisavideo.
Come along to the book signing with Dianne Hales.
Via delle Oche, 4R, Florence
October 2, 2014, 5.30-7.30pm