Il Convento di Sant' Orsola
The Convent of Saint Ursula
Mona Lisa Gherardini, the woman with the world's most recognized smile, celebrates her 538th birthday this month. The mother of six children lived quietly as a merchant's wife in Florence. Yet mysteries have long surrounded her. The greatest, still unsolved, is why the renowned Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci chose to paint her portrait. For centuries, scholars puzzled over another question: Where and when did she die?
No one knew until 2007, when Giuseppe Pallanti, author of Mona Lisa Revealed, reported his discovery of a record of her death at the convent of Sant' Orsola, where her youngest daughter had taken vows as a nun. After the death of her husband Francesco del Giocondo in 1538, Lisa chose to move to the convent, just steps from the family home–despite her husband's stipulation that she live with their son.
She never left the convent. When Lisa Gherardini died at age 63 on July 15, 1542, the entire community of Sant’ Orsola gathered at her funeral to mourn a cherished companion. At her request, she was buried, not in the del Giocondo crypt with her husband, but at the convent.
Sant' Orsola, deconsecrated under Napoleon in the early 1800s, served as a tobacco processing plant and university lecture hall before deteriorating into a hulking, boarded-up, graffiti-smeared ruin. "The shame of Florence," an editorial writer branded it, and Florentines have long clamored for a clean-up of the buca nera (black hole).
Several years ago I happened to be visiting Florence during the first official opening of the convent to the public. Musicians performed. Actors staged a dramatic reading based on Mona Lisa's life. Artists mounted portraits of contemporary "Mona Lisas" on the walls. I returned several times to linger amid the ruins. This place of devotion and tranquility, even in its decrepit state, held me.
Since then community groups have been advocating to bring Sant' Orsola back to life. Hearings have been held, petitions filed, proposals floated. Always there seemed to be an obstacle, from too little money to too many bureaucratic hurdles. Now Sant' Orsola has found an angel: a group of supporters headed by music superstar Andrea Bocelli.
City officials have given via libera (the equivalent of a green light) for development of the 25-30 million-euro project. A music school, under the direction of Bocelli and his brother, would occupy almost 6,000 square yards of the total of about 21,000 available. Also in the plans are a coffee bar, restaurant, bookstore, parking garage–and a museum dedicated to Lisa Gherardini.
"Non stiamo ‘cantando vittoria’" (We are not crying "victory" — or counting our chickens before they’ve hatched) notes Emanuele Salerno, speaking on behalf of the "St'O" or ObiettivoSanOrsola project, noting that a long road lies ahead. But the community's lunga e creativa marcia (long and creative march) toward its goal has taken a big step forward.
"È una cosa fantastica" (It's a fantastic thing), writes a columnist for La Nazione, noting that "ridare vita a un posto straordinario come Sant' Orsola è sempre una buona notizia per tutti" (to give life back to an extraordinary place like Sant' Orsola is always good news for everybody).
Personally, I can't think of a better birthday present for Florence's most famous and beloved daughter.
Click below for a tour of Sant' Orsola with the mayor of Florence. Even if you don't understand Italian, the images convey a sense of the convent's faded beauty. You can follow the progress on Twitter @StOrsolaProject, #IoStoConObiettiovoSantorsola.
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.