Kalogridis (The Borgia Bride, 2005, etc.) chronicles the perils of young Lisa di Antonio Gherardini long before she became the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.
“Known . . . to those of the common class [as] ‘Monna Lisa,’ ” she is the only child of a rich Florentine wool merchant with close ties to the ruling Medici family. In 1478, a year before Lisa was born, an attempt to slaughter the Medicis during mass ended the life of Lorenzo’s beloved younger brother Giuliano. Two of the murderers were hunted down and executed; a third remains at large 13 years later, when Lisa’s epileptic mother dies at the hands of fanatical priests who believe she is possessed. Within a month of witnessing her mother’s horrible end, Lisa is summoned to the home of Lorenzo de’ Medici, head of the family and a dazzlingly wealthy patron of the arts. He displays a mysterious fondness for the girl and commissions reigning artist Leonardo to paint her portrait. On his deathbed not long after, Lorenzo promises Lisa a large dowry and mumbles something about “the third man.” With his demise and the political turmoil among rival families that ensues, Lisa and her father are caught in dangerous limbo. (Also as a result of Lorenzo’s death, Leonardo’s portrait of her languishes.) Lisa falls in love with Lorenzo’s son Giuliano, named after his dead uncle, and they secretly marry. Giuliano is chased into exile in Rome, but Lisa, pregnant with his baby, is told he is dead. She agrees to marry her father’s odious savior, Francesco del Giocondo, although he is much older; moreover, she soon chillingly learns that Francesco has ties to the third murderer. The author provides plenty of cloak-and-dagger goings-on as Lisa reconnects with Leonardo, who lives in hiding because of his past ties to the Medicis, and reveals some stunning secrets about her mother. The story is endearingly told in Lisa’s sweet, gullible voice, but the characters ring more romantic than true, especially Leonardo.
A clever reworking, though not completely convincing.