Leonardo da Vinci was an outlier in so many ways: a peripatetic polymath, handsome, unmarried, an innovator, unquestionably an artistic genius. He doesn’t typify his era any more than geniuses ever do. Leonardo was a party of one.

Ah, but then there’s Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo: Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”—probably. Other candidates do exist, but most experts now believe this Florentine merchant’s wife was the model for the iconic portrait in the Louvre, arguably the world’s most famous painting. And as author Dianne Hales notes in the engaging Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, Lisa was an ordinary woman, albeit one with a wealthy husband. Her life provides an excellent entry point into early Renaissance Florence.

Hales, an experienced journalist, weaves the stories of Lisa, her older husband Francesco and Leonardo into a rich tapestry of family life, mercantile society, politics and artistic development. Hales acknowledges that we really don’t know anything about Lisa’s inner life, but we do know a good bit about her ancestry and circumstances, and the author is able to make some informed guesses. Thanks to public records, Francesco comes through more clearly as a sharp-elbowed opportunist. He likely met Leonardo when he was dickering with the artist’s notary father over a financial dispute with a monastery represented by Ser Piero da Vinci.

Particularly enthralling are Hales’ near-cinematic descriptions of Florence’s lively social life—its street festivals, baptisms, weddings. She also lets us in on her own effort to uncover Lisa’s life by taking us along on her visits to Lisa’s old neighborhoods and to contemporary scholars. Hales even introduces us to the present-day Italian aristocrats descended from Lisa, the Guicciardini Strozzi family, who are as charming as one would hope. And might that be a special smile on the príncipe’s lips?


This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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