While researching my biography of the Italian language in Florence, I became friends with an Italian art historian. One night at dinner in her home on Via Ghibellina, she mentioned that the mother of Lisa Gherardini, better known as Mona (Madame) Lisa, had lived in this very palazzo.
I had seen Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece in the Louvre years before, but I'd never thought of its subject as una donna vera (a real woman) with a mother and a home in Florence. Although intrigued, I didn’t set off in immediate pursuit. Lisa's story came to me gradually, bit by tantalizing bit.
With no specific project in mind, I nonetheless began clipping articles on new discoveries about the Gherardini family. Giuseppe Pallanti, an economist with a passion for archival research, had devoted countless hours to unearthing their tax statements and records of baptisms, marriages and deaths, which he published in La Vera Identità della Gioconda.
Through a typically Italian network of friends and friends of friends, I met this expert on la vera Lisa on a rooftop terrace overlooking her childhood neighborhood. Unfolding a tourist map of Florence, Pallanti marked an "X" to indicate her birthplace on Via Sguazza and another for Via della Stufa, where she had lived with her husband.
The very next day I ventured onto dank, dark Via Sguazza. Immediately I wanted to know more about the flesh-and-woman born on this fetid block. Who was she? What kind of family did she come from? Whom did she marry? Did she have children? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? And why does her smile enchant us still?
My quest for answers culminated in a new book, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on August 5. However, I didn’t want to wait until then to share her story, so I’ve launched a new website (www.monalisabook.com) and a new blog (Discovering Mona Lisa).
I invite you to visit and meet the real woman behind the iconic smile. The website includes a table of contents, photo gallery of images for the book and a map and guide to the key sites of Mona Lisa's Florence. As we approach pub date, I’ll post an excerpt.
The blog will report on what turned into a true journey of discovery as I delved deep into Lisa's family origins, Florence's rich history and the vibrant culture of Renaissance Italy. Those of you who subscribe to Becoming Italian Word by Word will continue to receive weekly posts about Italy’s language and culture as well as new posts about Mona Lisa and me. If you haven't yet subscribed, you can sign up here.
I am excited about bringing the story of Florence's most famous yet long ignored daughter "into the light"—a phrase used in Lisa's day for the birth of a baby. I’ve expanded my social media connections, so we can now stay in touch on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Linkedin, Instagram and Goodreads.
Benvenuti! Welcome! I hope you enjoy getting to know the lady with the mystic smile. (Click here to listen to Nat King Cole's classic ode.)
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.