Chapter 1 Una Donna Vera (A Real Woman)
A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her. An emperor coveted her. Poets lauded her. Singers crooned of her. Advertisers exploited her.
No face has ever captivated so many for so long. Every year more than 9 million visitors trek to her portrait in the Louvre. Like most, I stared at the masterpiece but never thought much about its subject.
Then I went to Florence—not once, but again and again. As a tourist, I explored its treasures. As a student, I learned its language. While researching La Bella Lingua, the tale of my love affair with Italian, I interviewed its scholars. On visit after visit, I immersed myself ever more deeply in its culture. And almost by chance, I came upon the woman behind the iconic smile.
One evening during a dinner at her home, Ludovica Sebregondi, an art historian who befriended me, mentions that the mother of “La Gioconda,” as Italians refer to Leonardo’s lady, grew up in this very building on Via Ghibellina. The casual comment takes me by surprise. To me Mona Lisa had always seemed nothing more than the painting in the Louvre or the ubiquitous image on everything from tee shirts to teapots, not a girl with a mother and a life of her own.
“Mona Lisa was an actual person?” I ask.
“Sì,” Ludovica replies, explaining that Monna Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo was “una donna vera” (a real woman) who had lived in Florence five centuries ago.
Monna, spelled with two n’s in contemporary Italian,
means “Madame,” a title of respect. Like other women of her time, Lisa would have carried her father’s name, Gherardini, throughout her life. Italians call the painting “La Gioconda” as a clever play on her husband’s surname (del Giocondo) and a descriptive for a happy woman (from the word’s literal meaning).
Yet the city’s most famous daughter is almost invisible in her hometown. No street or monument bears her name. No plaques commemorate the places where she lived.
Curiosity leads me, via a typically Italian network of friends and friends of friends, to the world’s expert on la vera Lisa: Giuseppe Pallanti. Tirelessly pursuing her family’s parchment and paper trail, this archival sleuth has unearthed tax statements, real estate transfers, court proceedings, and records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths, published in La Vera Identità della Gioconda in 2006.
We meet on a rooftop terrace overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno, the “other,” or southern, side of the Arno River. Pallanti, a soft-spoken, gray-haired economics instructor with a classic and kindly Tuscan face, cannot explain an obsession that has consumed him for decades. His wife has grown weary of her rival for his attention; his children groan at the sound of her name. But from the moment when he came upon her father’s signature on a land deed, he fell under Lisa’s thrall. Soon I would too.
Unfolding a tourist map of Florence, Pallanti marks an X to indicate the location of the house where Lisa was born, a converted wool shop on Via Sguazza. Once again I feel the electric buzz of an epiphany: Of course, una donna vera, a real woman, would have a real place of birth. I can’t wait to see it.
The very next day I make my way to a narrow lane off Via Maggio, once a main artery leading to the Porta Romana, the gate south to Siena. Via Sguazza, meaning “wallow,” lives up to its squalid name. More than five hundred years after residents complained of the stench from a clogged municipal drain, the street still stinks. The foul smell, I discover as I return
in different seasons, intensifies as temperatures rise and water levels fall.
Graffiti smear the grimy houses that line the dank street. Trash huddles in corners. Wooden doors splinter and sag on rusty hinges. No one lingers in the gloom. No one seems to care about a girl named Lisa Gherardini born centuries ago amid the clattering mills of Florence’s cloth trade. Unexpectedly, I find that I do.
Although I make no claims as scholar, historian, archivist, or Leonardista, the journalist in me immediately senses that the flesh-and-blood woman born on this fetid block has a story of her own, stretching deep into the past and woven into the rich fabric of Florence’s history. Determined to find out more, I begin asking the basic questions of my trade: who, where, what, when, how, and—the most elusive—why.
Who was she, this ordinary woman who rose to such extraordinary fame? When was she born? Who were her parents? Where did she grow up? How did she live? What did she wear, eat, learn, enjoy? Whom did she marry? Did she have children? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? What became of her? And why does her smile enchant us still?
Mona Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, we now know with as much certainty as possible after the passage of half a millennium, was a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals.
Descended from ancient nobles, she was born and baptized in Florence in 1479. Wed to a truculent businessman twice her age, she 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.
Yet dates and documents limn only the skeleton of a life, not a three-dimensional Renaissance woman. I yearn to know more about la donna vera and how she lived, to time-travel to her world and see it through her eyes. And so I decide to launch my own quest.
“Inhabit her neighborhoods,” an art historian advises me. On repeated
visits over the course of several years, I take up residence in various Florentine quartieri (districts) and stroll the same stony streets that Lisa Gherardini once did. I genuflect in the churches where she prayed. I linger in courtyards where she too may have breathed the fragrant scent of gelsomino (jasmine). As the X’s on my map multiply, I venture deeper—into musty cellars, abandoned chapels, antique silk mills, restored palazzi, and private libraries so deserted that I consider the dust motes drifting in the air my boon companions.
Each discovery fuels an unanticipated adrenaline surge. My pulse quickens at the touch of a sixteenth-century family history. I whoop in exhilaration when I find Lisa’s baptismal record in an ecclesiastic ledger. One day outside the home her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, bought for their growing family, a woman’s song floats from an open second-story window. Bells toll. Birds chirp. Centuries fall away. Bit by tantalizing bit, I feel la donna vera coming alive.
Now, when I visit or even think of Florence, I see Lisa everywhere: In Santa Maria Novella, eternal resting place of her Gherardini ancestors, once lords of lush river valleys in Chianti. In the Baptistery of St. John, where her godparents swept the newborn through Ghiberti’s gleaming bronze doors. In the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall where her forefathers and later her husband jostled for the highest seats of power. In the Bargello, once the dread hall of justice, where rebellious Gherardini met a grimmer fate.
Renaissance Florence was indeed, as the researcher Pallanti reminds me, “un fazzoletto” (a handkerchief), with everyone within walking and talking distance of each other. Around the corner from Lisa’s grandparents’ palazzo on Via Ghibellina stands the house where the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo may have come to pay court to the budding beauty. The rambunctious brood of Ser Piero da Vinci, a well-connected legal professional who worked for Florence’s most powerful and prominent citizens, lived just steps away. His illegitimate firstborn son Leonardo trained in a bottega (artist’s workshop) farther down the street.
Crinkled map in hand, I trace the route that Lisa may have ridden on her wedding day in 1495 when, astride a white charger, she crossed the heart
of Florence into “Medici country,” the neighborhood clustered around the Basilica of San Lorenzo. There, in a cat’s cradle of streets, I find the original beams and an inner courtyard of one of several del Giocondo properties, now home to the Studio Art Centers International (SACI).
On nearby Via della Stufa, extensively rebuilt over the centuries, I join Silvano Vinceti, a self-styled cacciatore di ossa (bone hunter) spearheading a controversial campaign to identify Lisa Gherardini’s skeleton. A city engineer leads us to No. 23, the approximate location of the home that was the probable destination for Leonardo’s portrait.
With a Parisian television crew filming footage for a documentary, Vinceti, a chain-smoking, spindly-limbed, garrulous showman, rings the doorbell. A chic young Frenchwoman in spiky heels and pale green scarf emerges. She is merely renting an apartment, she explains, and knows nothing of the painting she calls La Joconde. I furtively snap a photo of the entrance hall.
Early one morning I walk through a leafy neighborhood where monasteries and abbeys once clustered to the former convent of San Domenico di Cafaggio, now a military forensic medicine institute. Peering through the wrought-iron fence, I imagine my way back to the long-ago time when shocking scandal and tragic loss rocked this tranquil site—and Lisa’s family as well.
Another day brings me to a cherished Florentine shrine, the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata (Most Holy Annunciation). Heart pounding in fear of trespassing (more so of being caught and ejected), I heed an art restorer’s tip and slip through an unmarked door next to a confessional and make my way along a semicircular row of private chapels. The dark one just to the right of center houses the remains of Lisa’s husband and two of his sons.
I kneel to trace the Latin words “familiae iucundi” (“of the Giocondo family”) on a marble floor stone.
Lisa’s mortal remains should lie here with her husband’s, but she defied his wishes and chose a different resting place: the Monastero di Sant’Orsola, just a short block from her home on Via della Stufa. Once an exclusive finishing school for the daughters of Florence’s elite, Sant’Orsola has suffered centuries of neglect. Its bleak walls are blotched with ugly graffiti, peeling posters, rusted grates, and rows of bricked-up
arched windows. Jagged beams jut from the parapets; nets suspended along the roof snag crumbling stones before they crash onto the sidewalk. Dodgy characters—drug dealers, I’m told—linger in the shadows. Passersby avert their eyes and speed up their pace.
“La vergogna di Firenze,” an editorial writer branded the blighted block. “The shame of Florence.” Several years ago the city announced plans to rebuild the site as a neighborhood cultural center, perhaps named for the woman who epitomizes culture itself. On my most recent visit, I see no signs of progress, just a desolate bookend to a forgotten existence.
Although much has changed over the centuries, the heart of Lisa’s hometown has not. Hers was the urban masterpiece that thrills us still, the city of Brunelleschi’s sky-skimming Cupolone (big dome), Giotto’s graceful Campanile (bell tower), the sacred spaces of Santa Croce and Orsanmichele, the slender spire of La Badia Fiorentina. In Lisa’s lifetime, a galaxy of artistic stars—Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Perugino, Filippino Lippi—rivaled the heavens with their brilliance. None outshone the incandescent genius of Leonardo, who emerges from the fog of history as more of a cultural force than a mere human being.
Nothing about this artist and architect, musician and mathematician, scientist and sculptor, engineer and inventor, anatomist and author, geologist and botanist was ever ordinary. The consummate Renaissance man sketched, designed, painted, and sculpted like no one else. He looked like no one else, with carefully curled locks in his youth and a prophet’s chest-long beard in age.
He wrote like no one else, in his inimitable “mirror script” that filled thousands of pages.
He rode like a champion, so strong that a biographer claimed he could bend a horseshoe with his hands.
During Leonardo’s and Lisa’s lifetimes, larger-than-legend characters strutted across the Florentine stage: Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose magnificence rubbed off on everything he touched. The charismatic friar Savonarola, who inflamed souls before meeting his own fiery death. Ruthless Cesare Borgia, who hired Leonardo as his military engineer. Niccolò Machiavelli, who collaborated with the artist on an audacious scheme to change the course of the Arno River.
“Maledetti fiorentini!” (Accursed Florentines!), their enemies jeered.
Sometimes admired, often feared, never loved, Lisa’s fellow citizens were vilified for—in one historian’s inventory of their vices—greed, avarice, inconstancy, faithlessness, pride, and arrogance, not to mention “peculiar sexual proclivities.”
Even its native sons derided their hometown as a veritable cauldron of suspicion, mistrust, and envy—“a paradise inhabited by devils,” as one Florentine wrote to an exiled compatriot.
Leonardo would have had reason to agree.
In Milan, where he spent more than a third of his life, he was known as “il fiorentino,” but he was born in 1452 in rural Anchiano, a hamlet near the town of Vinci. The illegitimate son of an unmarried country girl, he might have passed an anonymous life amid the birds and horses and streams that fascinated him from boyhood. Instead his father, Ser Piero, an honorary title for a notaio, a keeper of records, inscriber of transactions, and maker of wills, brought his preternaturally talented son to the booming city of Florence to apprentice as an artist.
Despite some major commissions, Leonardo never carved a niche for himself in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s favored circle. But in Milan, under the patronage of its ambitious Duke Ludovico Sforza, his genius bloomed. For almost two full and fulfilling decades, Leonardo delved deep into mathematics, hydrodynamics, physics, and astronomy; orchestrated breathtaking theatrical spectacles; designed prototypes for a helicopter, armored tank, and submarine; and brought to painting such remarkable verisimilitude that Christ and his apostles seemed to breathe as they gathered for their last supper together.
Then history turned on a ducat. A French invasion of Milan forced Leonardo to flee to Florence in 1500. Over the next few feverish years, he would join the employ of the infamous Cesare Borgia, collaborate with Niccolò Machiavelli, spar with the upstart sculptor Michelangelo, mourn his father’s death, attempt unparalleled artistic feats, and suffer ignominious failures. Through these years and beyond, he lavished time and attention on the one portrait he would keep with him for the rest of his life—Lisa Gherardini’s.
Why her? Why did the “divine” Leonardo, at the height of his talent and renown, choose to paint someone with no title, no fortune, no claim to power or prestige? Soon after I begin pondering these questions, a friend gives me a holographic postcard of the Mona Lisa. With the slightest motion, the evanescent image shifts from Leonardo’s portrait to another view of the model, face turned to the left rather than the right, both hands raised as if to push back a veil. The second, oddly disconcerting image portrays a more spontaneous woman, as if captured the moment before settling into position before the artist’s easel.
Holding the card, I flick it gently to watch this other woman morph almost magically into Leonardo’s Lisa and back again. If I steady the card in mid-transformation, I see two faces simultaneously, two Lisas—one the familiar icon and the other the less recognizable donna vera. I wonder if Leonardo, the master of “sapere vedere” (knowing how to see), might have glimpsed more than what met others’ eyes in this seemingly ordinary woman—a flicker perhaps of the indomitable spirit that family members referred to as their “Gherardiname,” their essential, proud Gherardini-ness.
Could this be why he chose Lisa as his model? Not, or not just, for money. Not, or not just, because of a possible friendship with her husband. Not, or not just, as a virtuoso display of innovative painterly techniques.
Outspoken members of what I think of as the “anyone-but-Lisa” league argue that the woman we see in the Louvre is not the Florentine merchant’s wife, but the victim of art’s most egregious case of mistaken identity. The nominees for alternative sitters include a bevy of more or less unlikely candidates, including a warrior duchess, a marchioness, a countess, and a courtesan or two.
Others contend with equal vehemence that Leonardo’s model is no lady at all. Mathematicians, citing his fascination with their field, “read” her as a transcription of equations and logarithms. An Egyptologist alleges that Mona Lisa represents the goddess Isis, with the ancient secret
of the Giza Pyramids encrypted in her image. Or she could be a reincarnation of Leonardo’s mother (Freud’s theory), a transgendered self-portrait (a twentieth-century view), or a depiction of a longtime male companion nicknamed Salaì (a consistent headline-grabber).
Yet the evidence that Lisa Gherardini was indeed Leonardo’s model has mounted steadily. A margin note in a sixteenth-century volume, discovered in the last decade, specifically describes and dates the portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. Some remain skeptical. Others dismiss the model’s identity as an irrelevant detail that simply doesn’t matter in consideration of a great work of art.
The Mona Lisa, I agree, ultimately remains what it is: a masterpiece of sublime beauty. And yet my quest to discover the real Lisa Gherardini has added new dimensions to my appreciation of the portrait. Once I saw only a silent figure with a wistful smile. Now I behold a daughter of Florence, a Renaissance woman, a merchant’s wife, a loving mother, a devout Christian, a noble spirit. Lisa’s life beyond the frame opens a window onto a time poised between the medieval and the modern, a vibrant city bursting into fullest bloom, and a culture that redefined the possibilities of man—and of woman.
By the time of Lisa Gherardini’s death in 1542, Florence’s golden age had ended. Within decades her family faded into the recesses of time—or so historians assumed. But the family tree continued to sprout.
Lisa’s granddaughter gave birth to a new generation, which begat another, and another, then more. Over five centuries her descendants married into a Who’s Who of distinguished families, including a count of the Guicciardini clan (best known for the historian Francesco Guicciardini, a colleague of Machiavelli), a principessa of the Strozzi dynasty, and an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that genealogist Domenico Savini meticulously traced fifteen generations of Lisa’s heirs to identify her last living descendants: the real-life princesses Natalia and Irina Guicciardini Strozzi.
On a cloudless June morning, my husband and I weave through Tuscany’s postcard-pretty hills toward the towered town of San Gimignano.
Skirting this self-proclaimed “medieval Manhattan,” we ascend a steep lane under a canopy of leafy green to a tenth-century castello straight out of a fairy tale, home of the Guicciardini Strozzi family, its winery, and its tasting rooms.
Two radiant young women in their thirties greet us with toothy, megawatt smiles—completely unlike Mona Lisa’s sly grin. Blue-jeaned Natalia, a stunning actress who trained and danced as a professional ballerina in Russia, bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. Her more reserved younger sister, Irina, elegant in white, studied at Milan’s distinguished Bocconi University before joining her father in managing the family’s wine business.
“We always knew,” they tell me when I ask if they were surprised by the documentation of their family tie to Lisa Gherardini. As little girls, their paternal grandmother had regaled them with tales of a beautiful relative painted by Leonardo—twice, once on the wood panel in the Louvre and again in another portrait passed down in the family for centuries.
As we chat and tour the labyrinthine wine cellars, I wonder aloud if the sisters’ effervescent charm might mirror Lisa’s high-spirited Gherardiname. They are dubious.
“It’s amazing to feel that something in our blood, in our DNA, connects us to the woman in the most famous of paintings,” says Irina, “but it doesn’t affect who we are in today’s world.”
Yet it may affect how they look. In addition to brown eyes and long dark hair—generic Italian traits—there is something Lisaesque around the princesses’ eyes and in the oval of their cheeks and jaws.
“But not in our smiles!” Natalia jokes, flashing her mile-wide grin. “Our father—he’s the one who smiles like La Gioconda.” Unfortunately, he is tied up in meetings. And so in a flurry of hugs and arrivedercis, we take our leave.
“What delightful young women!” my husband enthuses as we walk to our car. “Do you think they really are related to Mona Lisa?”
“Chissà!” I shrug. Who knows? The odds of ever finding out with anything approaching certainty range from nonexistent to minuscule.
Then I realize that I have left my sunglasses behind. Dashing back to the castello, I burst into a courtyard where a tall, silver-maned man stands, his back toward me.
Startled by my unexpected entrance, Principe Girolamo Guicciardini Strozzi turns slowly. His forehead crinkles in curiosity. His eyes lift. And then I see it, appearing on his lips as if it had migrated directly from Leonardo’s portrait: the same demismile that has been beguiling the world for five hundred years.
It is the smile of la donna vera, the real woman who just might be his ancestral grandmother.
The smile of a Gherardini.