Saturday, January 20, 2007

Mona Lisa

Overhead in the Sacristy has a full reporting about the recent discovery of more details about the real life "Mona Lisa".

Fascinating details of the life of “the real Mona Lisa” have been established by an Italian art historian.

Giuseppe Pallanti said that documents in a Florence church archive provided more information about Lisa Gherardini, second wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant, and who was the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait. She had five children, and was a widow of 63 when she died, and was likely buried, at a convent in Florence in July 1542, 39 years after the portrait was painted.

She was born in 1479, raised at her family's Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany and that she married del Giocondo in 1495. The Convent of Sant'Orsola, where she died at age 63, now disused and in ruins, is near the San Lorenzo basilica.

"It was in this convent that Mona Lisa placed her youngest daughter Marietta, who later became a nun. And it was there that Lisa, as stipulated in the will of her husband who died four years before her, ended her life," Pallanti told the daily La Repubblica on Friday.

In 1550-1568 , Giorgio Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists:

"Lionardo undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo a portrait of Mona Lisa his wife, but having spent four years upon it, left it unfinished.

This work now belongs to King Francis of France, and whoever wishes to see how art can imitate nature may learn from this head.

Mona Lisa being most beautiful, he used, while he was painting her, to have men to sing and play to her and buffoons to amuse her, to take away that look of melancholy which is so often seen in portraits; and in this of Lionardo's there is a peaceful smile more divine than human.

By the excellence of the works of this most divine of artists his fame was grown so great that all who delighted in art, and in fact the whole city, desired to have some memorial of it. And the Gonfalonier and the chief citizens agreed that, the Great Hall of the Council having been rebuilt, Lionardo should be charged to paint some great work there."

It is pleasing to think that when Lisa died, she must have died knowing that it was her features which were the subject of a very famous portrait. She must have been an object of local fame.

However, she never did see the finished portrait. It stayed with Leonardo and then entered the possession of the Kings of France.

But by a historic coincidence, the portrait may have come close to her about three hundred and fifty years after her death.

The painting was stolen from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. by a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia. After keeping the painting in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was caught when he attempted to sell it to a Florence art dealer. He and the painting were seized in what is now the Hotel la Gioconda in Via Panzani, 2 Florence, about 400 yards from the Convent. (See

As regards the Convent, the San Lorenzo website of Florence ( states:

"The convent dates to 1309 when four women held meetings in the name of Saint Orsola, a legendary martyr from the sixth century. They decided to build the so-called Cafaggio di San Lorenzo, a convent with a church that prospered for more than a century.

In 1435 the Orsoline nuns, were reduced to just a few members with little income so they were transferred to the monastery of Sant'Agata and the Tertiary Franciscans came to the site.

They remained until the Napoleonic invasions in 1808 when many ecclesiastic holdings were nationalised.

Shortly thereafter, in 1810, the Architect Bartolommeo Silvestri removed the religious aspects from the convent when he was given the job of transforming the space into a factory for tobacco manufacturing.

It remained a state owned factory until 1930 when it moved to its new headquarters in the Cascine and this large space became a shelter for the poor.

In 1970 even the homeless were moved and the complex was assigned to the University of Florence but never used as classrooms due to the enormous cost of restoring and restructing the building."

In light of this unfortunate history, it is likely that the location of the grave of Lisa will be traced.

As regards the placing of Lisa in a Convent after the death of her husband, it has to be realised that in 1552, 11% of the female population in Florence were in convents. In some Italian cities at some times in the late Middle Ages and beyond, the percentage of the female population in convents may have risen to as high as 20%.

For a discussion of women and convents in Renaissance Italy, see Elissa B. Weaver Renaissance Culture in Italian Convents in Convent Theatre in Early Modern Italy (2002) (Cambridge University Press).

For this Chapter, see