Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo
June 15, 1479 -- July 15, 1542
On a mid-June day in Florence in 1479, a midwife—called a levatrice for her “lifting” (levare) of a baby into the light -- gently washed the newborn daughter of Antonmaria and Lucrezia Gherardini with warm white wine and swaddled her tightly in linen. Only her pink rosebud face peeked out from her wrappings when her father took the priceless bundle in his arms.
Thirty-five-year-old Antonmaria Gherardini had great reason to exult in his daughter's birth: His first two wives had died in childbirth, a grim fate that befell one in four Florentine mothers. The new father led a high-spirited crowd of amici, parenti e vicini (friends, relatives and neighbors) from the humble converted wool shop he rented on fetid Via Sguazza across the Ponte Vecchio to the Battisero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St. John). His exhausted wife remained at home in the care of an aptly named guardadonna (literally, lady-watcher).
Florentine Catholics baptized all newborns at the Baptistery by law until well into the twentieth century. Its octagonal shape represented eight days: the six during which God created heaven and earth and all that inhabits them, the seventh when He rested, and the eighth, the eternal day that never ends.
Antonmaria Gherardini’s newborn daughter could not enter the Baptistery’s hallowed interior with an uncleansed soul. On the entrance steps a priest exhorted any unclean spirits to flee and the Holy Spirit to come in their stead. Her godparents, bound to her almost as closely as blood relatives, pronounced the infant’s second or middle name: Camilla.
The Gherardini party entered the vast open hall, its celestial ceiling, a huge Italo-Byzantine image of Christ the King and Judge, shimmering above them. At the octagonal marble font, the priest sprinkled holy water on the infant. When asked how the child would be called, her godparents intoned her first name, “Lisa,” a tribute to Antonmaria’s mother, who had died a few years before.
Modern technology led me across five centuries to Lisa's baptismal record--in the digitalized “registri battesimali” (baptismal registries) of Santa Maria del Fiore di Firenze. Six lines below the bold heading of “Martedì Adi XV di Guigno 1479” (Tuesday the fifteenth day of June 1479), you can see the name “Lisa & Camilla di AntonMaria Gherardini di San Pancrazio” (an old neighborhood in Florence).
In a tradition that started just a few years ago, Lisa's hometown celebrates her birthday with a festival. The program for her 537th includes concerts, a walking tour of San Frediano, live paintings by local artists, a traveling exhibit of bikers in customized tee shirts, and a photo shoot of contestants dressed like Mona Lisa.
If you're in Florence, join the party! Although many miles away, I will certainly be toasting the timeless beauty who continues to enchant us half a millenium after her birth.
Buon compleanno, Lisa!
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Click below for the classic tribute to Leonardo's lady by a young Nat King Cole.