MONA LISA by Dianne Hales


A Life Discovered
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Like many visitors to the Louvre, journalist Hales (La Bella Lingua: A Passionate Journey through the World’s Most Beautiful Language, 2009, etc.) was fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait and set out to investigate the real Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo: “Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model?...And why does her smile enchant us still?”

The author already established her affection for anything Italian in her previous book. Here, she romps through Italy’s roiling political past, eager to make 15th-century figures seem contemporary. Reading letters between one husband and wife, she felt that she was viewing “a medieval version of a television reality show” in which the husband was a “workaholic merchant….I can imagine the stressed-out businessman as a character in a Woody Allen film—perhaps a neurotic, death-obsessed Wall Street trader, with a therapist on speed dial, antacids in his pocket, and Xanax in his medicine cabinet….” Artists in Florence, she insists, “reigned like rock stars.” Inserting herself into the narrative, Hales recounts brief, often banal conversations and discloses her own wide-eyed responses to people, places and things. Upon finding Lisa’s birth certificate: “Leaping out of my chair, I dance in excitement.” Her jaw dropped when she visited a Baroque palace to interview a princess. As for Lisa—wife of a wealthy merchant and mother of seven (one a stepson)—little evidence exists about her life. Hales, then, extrapolates what her life “would have been” from books about Renaissance women. The repetition of “would have,” “might have” and “perhaps” throughout the book gives the narrative—as lively and detailed as it is—a speculative quality. The author also includes a “Mona Lisa Timeline” and a list of key characters.

The breezy tone is a jarring contrast to the considerable scholarship that informs the author’s history.

Pub Date: Aug. 5th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4516-5896-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2014


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