"La Joconde, c’est partie!” (The Mona Lisa is gone!) a guard at the Louvre gasped in horror on Tuesday, August 22, 1911. Only four iron hooks framed by a ghostly rectangular shape hung in her place on the wall. The frame was found unmarred in a stairwell, as if the Florentine lady had emerged from it, in one chronicler’s words, “as effortlessly as a woman stepped out of her petticoats.” In an instant La Joconde became the most wanted woman in the world.
In a tradition that started just a few years ago, Lisa's hometown is celebrating her 537th birthday with a festival. The program for this year includes concerts, a walking tour of her neighborhood 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.
Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini, born in 1479, never ventured beyond her native Italy, yet hers is a face recognized around the world. As Mona LIsa: A Life Discovered makes its way into foreign translations, I delight in seeing the story of this Florentine wife and mother travel into different languages and different places.
The consummate Renaissance man was born on April 15, 1452 in rural Anchiano, a hamlet near the town of Vinci. His mother, Caterina, was an unmarried country girl. His father Piero, a legal professional called a notaio, moved to Florence shortly thereafter and wed a socially suitable bride. Young Leonardo, listed as “non legittimo” in the local tax records, grew up in his paternal grandparents' home.
The Mona Lisa is quite possibly the most well-known piece of painted artwork in the entire world. It was painted by the Leonardo da Vinci in the early 16th century and was commissioned by Francesco Del Giocondo. The subject of the painting is his wife, Lisa, who was born to a well-known family from Tuscany. Her husband was a very wealthy silk merchant. The work was commissioned to celebrate the completion of their home and the birth of their second son. It was only in 2005 that the identity of Mona Lisa‘s subject was finally agreed upon by historians.
After art experts from the Uffizzi and the Louvre confirmed that the portrait brought to Florence was indeed Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, many Florentines hoped that “their” Lisa would remain in residence. However, the Italian government immediately began arrangements to deliver the painting to the French—and to do so “with a solemnity worthy of Leonardo and a spirit of happiness worthy of La Gioconda’s smile.”