This reviewer got it right: I must confess that MONA LISA was, at least in part, "a glorious excuse to explore the Italian Renaissance and wander the modern streets of Florence."
by Nelson Appell
In Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, Dianne Hales explores the life and times of the woman whose face is on the most famous piece of art in the world. Acknowledging that there is some disagreement about who Leonardo da Vinci painted, Hales accepts the premise that da Vinci’s subject was Mona Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, a married Florentine woman of a noble bloodline.
Since Mona Lisa left no writings, Hales forms her portrait of Mona Lisa by examining what life was like for women in Renaissance Italy and fitting that around the few known details of Mona Lisa. Hales' quest to unearth Mona Lisa gives her a glorious excuse to explore the Italian Renaissance and wander the modern streets of Florence. The book is equal parts cultural history, biography and travelogue.
Mona Lisa did not live during a quiet time in history. As Hales notes, she “lived amid rapid change, political strife, meteoric creativity, and economic booms and busts.” Two different French Kings invaded Italy during her lifetime. Mona Lisa lived through the expulsion, exile and return of the Medici’s.
Neighboring Rome was sacked in 1527 by the army of Holy Roman Emperor, and in 1530 the Florentine Republic fell under siege and surrendered. Throughout these violent and unpredictable times, Mona Lisa lived in Florence and managed household and family affairs while her husband’s attentions were focused on business.
Hales writes not only a biography of Mona Lisa, but also the man who immortalized her, the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci, who lived an adventuresome life in the turbulent Italian Renaissance. In his life he met and worked for many famous and nefarious people, such as Cesare Borgia, Michelangelo, and Niccolo Machiavelli. I particularly enjoyed the details of Machiavelli and Leonardo working together in their failed attempt to divert the Arno River.
Hales weaves the journey of her own modern investigations into the book. She speaks with experts and walks the same streets that Mona Lisa walked, but I found these sections to be secondary to the part of book that interested me: how Mona Lisa and da Vinci lived through a turbulent and vital period of Italian history, and how those lives intersected to become the most famous painting of the world.
The final chapter is a biography of the painting itself after da Vinci’s death. This includes the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and its recovery in 1913.