Translated by: Joyce Myerson
You, who pass before me and gaze without seeing me, do not forsake me. Please stop. Help me, if you can. Or at least allow me to recount my sad fate, because there is nothing lonelier than having a memory which cannot be shared.
My name is Lisa. My name is one of the few things I have left. It endures, despite the ravages of time. Sometimes I would like to forget it and plunge into oblivion. It’s better than plunging into madness. Consciousness is not a privilege. It is only the most perverse form of torture that God could have envisaged. No, no god could have wanted this. A demon, perhaps. Or perhaps only a man who wanted to be a god.
I remember the first time he set foot in my home. It was to be a joyous event, but it turned out to be the dawn of my ordeal. It was the occasion of the birth of my son Andrew, a pampered ball of fluff that attached himself to my breast, waved his little hands about, earning all the love from his wet-nurse and siblings. He was the second male that I had brought to light, and my husband, Francesco, decided to convene a solemn banquet to thank Our Lord for his benevolence.
I did not yet know that this benevolence would soon evaporate.
I had worn my best dress—two segments of velvet, inlaid with silver, and laterally tied with ribbons that exposed the white of my undergarment. The cuffs reached the fingertips at the back of my hand, and on the other side opened into a “V”, beginning at the wrist, so as to leave my palm uncovered. The broad plunging neckline displayed the powdered skin of my chest.
I can almost hear again the sound of the strings and feel the rhythm of the dances. I have always loved to dance, as much as long skirts and a sense of propriety would allow. That evening I had much else to think about: upholding the honour of the household was entrusted to me, while my husband entertained the relatives and other guests. The scions of the most illustrious Florentine families had descended upon us in great numbers, enticed by the good food and especially the diversions that the banquet would offer. Francesco wished for it to be long-remembered, and had also invited all of the prominent personalities of Florence.
He among them.
He did it for me, my Francesco. He was fifteen years older than me, but he loved me. He could not have known that he was signing my life sentence. Or perhaps it was my own pride that condemned me. But the punishment has immensely outweighed the sin.
The table overflowed with wild game and select dishes. The wine did not linger long in the goblets, and immediately began to loosen the tongues of our fellow diners. It is with great effort that I try to remember its taste. It was like a sweet nectar caressing one’s throat—an illicit pleasure, or maybe just an idealization of something that I can no longer have. My only prevailing taste is one of ashes.
Perhaps I drank too much that evening and the wine emboldened me and made me curious. “Curiosity killed the cat,” my mother always told me, before consumption did away with her. I used to laugh and pretend to meow. It was a humorous game we played. Now I know she was right.
Not everyone ate and laughed under the light of the golden candelabras of our palace.
He stood apart from the jubilant throb of sounds and colours, his brow marked by a deep and definite frown line. Perhaps it was this that intrigued me, or the aura of energy and mystery that pulsated around him. Just looking at him you understood that the man’s fame was justified. He was neither tall nor robust, but he stood out from his companions around the table like a flame among faint shadows.
Nearing that flame, we risked being burned.
I withdrew from the convivial humming of the hall and followed him onto the terrace overlooking the garden. The air was strangely hot considering the season, almost sultry. I rolled up my sleeves and moved forward towards the balustrade. The vegetation was a labyrinth of hedges and roses that disappeared into the dark of night.
Out of the corner of my eye, I studied this bizarre guest. He was wearing a dark surcoat above his tunic, well-made but certainly not as elegant as those worn by noblemen or wealthy merchants. It was worth less than a tenth of my dress. His hair and sideburns were streaked with grey and his thick beard gave him an almost scruffy look. He could not be described as handsome, but he had something that inspired awe.
“Messer Leonardo?” I tried to engage him.
The man jumped as if until that moment he had not noticed me. He was leaning against the stone parapet staring into the darkness, his fingers entwined, his lips moving without a sound emerging from them. He turned to look at me. His grey eyes shone in the flare of the torches, as he studied me from head to toe.
“My Lady,” he delivered these words —stiff and courteous—with a slight bow.
“I am pleased that you found the time to accept our invitation. I know that you are extremely busy in this period.”
A hint of a smile on his lips, the first of the evening, and it was directed at me. I was charmed, I must admit. I was a fly, dancing in his spider’s web.
“I am constantly travelling between Milan, Florence, and Rome. But I always try to carve out a moment for my studies. And for the celebrations of my fellow Florentines.” He paused here to register my appreciation of the fact that he considered Florence his home. “And who knows, perhaps to find fresh inspiration.”
I moved a step closer—as close as decorum would sanction. Those grey penetrating eyes absorbed all my attention, the banquet’s din mere background noise. I had even forgotten about Andrew who was awaiting his next feeding. On the terrace, where light and dark were competing for dominance, there was no one but us.
“I have asked myself what inspires your paintings,” I admitted. The master adjusted his garment over his shoulders.
“It matters not from where I start… merely what I seek.”
“And what is it you seek, then?”
Leonardo lowered his voice conspiratorially.
“That which man has been seeking for centuries, my Lady, from the first dances around the fire to the experiments of the most learned: to fly beyond our limits. And the ultimate limit to conquer is time. Even the great alchemists of Antiquity, such as Hermes Trismegistus himself, were attempting to do this.
I had no idea of what he was speaking. My culture did not extend beyond housekeeping and singing. I barely knew how to read and write. But I nodded anyway. There was something intrinsically overpowering about this man’s words.
“Only perfection can defeat time and become immortal.”
“So you are seeking immortality?”
“You are a shrewd woman.” Again that smile full of mystery. I felt my face grow red with heat, but I sensed a cold tingling down my spine. I paid no attention to it, so flattered was I by the great artist’s compliment. “The ideal subject for a painting. I will be staying in Florence a while and, at the moment, I have no commissions. Would you permit me to place my art at your disposal?”
A painting by Leonardo would excite envy on the part of the other Florentine families who did not fail to remind Francesco of their noble birth, calling him “a wealthy but common merchant upstart.” This would change their minds.
I nodded eagerly. “I would like a portrait.”
I began posing for him the next day. My husband was as thrilled as I was at this unexpected opportunity. To tell you the truth, he was convinced that he had commissioned the portrait and that Leonardo had accepted. Why should I have shattered his illusion? He provided the artist with food and lodging in a dwelling in the vicinity of Palazzo Gondi. It belonged to our family and was close to Piazza della Signoria.
Every morning I left the house together with Catherine, my lady’s maid, and so eager was I that I barely touched the cobblestones of my street, the Via della Stufa, as I hurried along. The wind carried the peal of the bells from the Cathedral of Santa Reparata and the scents from the shops of artisans—of leather and terracotta—but I paid no attention. I only thought about my coming encounter with Leonardo, about those eyes of his that seemed to read my soul, about his hands that travelled so swiftly over the panel creating something stunning from nothing. Initially he devoted his energies to the background. As I sat still, Leonardo breathed life into a landscape transformed by a continuous and nebulous mixing of the browns of the earth and the blues of the sky, without clouds, as the scene itself was all one endless cloud.
“This is the Arno River,” he explained to me at the end of each sitting, “and here, between these rocky spurs and peaks, the road to Rome wends its way….”
However, after more than a month, he hadn’t sketched in the human figure. One evening I tried to point that out.
“All in good time,” he dismissed me with a curt gesture. In the last few days his good mood was evaporating and he was becoming nervous. I noticed that he was wearing a signet ring on his finger—a snake biting its own tail.
I was neglecting my children and my housework in order to pose for him. A strange frenzy had taken hold of me. I wanted that portrait to be finished, and also that it would be considered the most magnificent and realistic painting ever. Leonardo’s enthusiasm had infected me and at night I woke up soaked in sweat, thinking about that panel, which obsessed me more and more. I had lost my appetite and Francesco made me consult the best doctor in Florence, fearing that disease, which causes one to spew blood. The doctor found nothing and limited his advice to my imbibing an aromatic tisane.
I continued to dream of the painting in which my face had not yet appeared.
Leonardo’s study filled up with new contraptions each and every day and his work became more feverish. He, too, got thin. The white filaments of his beard multiplied as if in a sudden snowfall. But even though his sunken eyes were circled in purple, they blazed out with a ferocious energy.
He started to scare me.
Work slowed. Leonardo had received another more prestigious and lucrative commission destined for the Palazzo Vecchio’s Salone dei Cinquecento. He was not the type to care about money, and I’m sure that he would have continued to create even if he did not receive a single florin, but money served to buy paint and canvases.
So that he could seek his perfection.
He drew human figures and studied their anatomy. He designed strange devices that reminded me of birds. I remember all the sketches scattered on the floor of his room. Since they did not satisfy him, he walked all over them.
Catherine often refused to accompany me. She said that the man was mad and begged me to give him up. I would have done it, had Leonardo not finally begun to work on the painting’s focal point—me.
Only that woman was not really me. She personified the characteristics of virtuous women, with her right hand placed upon her left, her dark robes, and the black veil according to Spanish and Roman high fashion. She was a fascinating accomplished woman, who fully embodied the social aspirations of my husband.
“But it’s fake!”
This was Leonardo’s cry when the work was unsatisfactory. Then he tore up his drawings, flung his glass beakers all over the place, and only the sound of smashing covered the clamour of his cries of displeasure—the keening of a wild beast that had missed his prey by a hair’s breadth.
The problem was the face.
First he tried putting a bonnet on my head. Then he opted for a veil.
“No, it’s not right. It’s not perfect. It has to be perfect!”
“Perfection rests only with Our Lord, who has created us in His image,” I asserted one evening when bidding him farewell. I admit his eccentricities were beginning to irritate me. Leonardo stared at me and suddenly his face began to glow in a radiant blaze of light.
“My Lady, come back at the next new moon. We will then have what we both seek.”
He was correct, unfortunately, but not in the way that I thought.
God forgive me, but my only crime was one of ignorance.
When I entered his study, the dust motes were dancing inside the sliver of light that filtered through the wooden shutter, partially-closed to keep out the rest of the world. His glass beakers twinkled ominously on the table. Time stood still. Leonardo was seated on a stool, his chin resting on the back of his hand. His gaze was intensely fixed on the finished panel.
It took my breath away.
I had seen many masterpieces. Florence, in this period, was a fiery forge of artistic invention, and my husband was a passionate lover of art, besides a silk merchant, but I had never laid eyes on such a marvel. It wasn’t so much the hazy landscape, the accuracy of the ample low-cut garment, or the transparent veil entwined in the hair. It was the face, rendered with the softest of brushstrokes, so delicate as to make one doubt that they were the work of the hands of the man, whom I had seen shatter vases, and violently fling paint at the walls.
But this was Leonardo. Both gentle and violent. A genius and a madman.
“It’s perfect,” I murmured, fascinated by the smile that barely touched the lips of the face in the painting. Leonardo was fiddling with the serpent ring.
“But not real,” he lowered his voice, “Not yet!”
I paid no attention. Ah, had I only understood the true sense of those words! Had I caught the gleam of lucid madness in his gaze! But it was not so. And I accepted the goblet that he extended towards me in order to toast the good outcome of the painting.
I realized my error too late.
I had to lean on the easel. My head was spinning. The scarf around my neck seemed heavier, and the air surged around me, quivering like molten lava.
“Poison,” I thought in a flash of terror—a treachery that had ensnared many a nobleman in palace conspiracies. But why me? It did not make sense.
“It is not poison,” Leonardo seemed to have intuited my thoughts. He was standing with arms crossed, concentrating his gaze on me with avid anticipation. He had not drunk of that liquid concocted in one of those mysterious glass beakers! I blinked rapidly but could no longer keep him in focus. Now everything rippled like water around me, the room whirling in a misty vortex, in which only the eyes of the artist—two shadowy cavities—and that snake remained constant. I thought I saw it move, as it eternally bit down on its tail.
The symbol of the disciples of alchemy.
Then I felt faint and the universe dissolved in a swirl of colour.
I would have preferred to stay stuck in that blinding rainbow. I would have preferred not to see. But I saw.
I saw myself standing in Leonardo’s room. My clothes, my hair, my face. But it wasn’t me. Something was missing. I struggled to find the word that epitomized that sensation.
She was missing humanity—that imperfection that makes everything truly real. Just as it had been absent in the woman painted in the picture…
When I understood, I tried to scream, but an indefinable smile remained glued to my lips. I tried to flee, but I had neither legs nor arms, except for those frozen onto the wood panel. I tried to close my eyes, but they would remain open forever.
I saw Leonardo place a hand on the shoulder of the Lisa that would exit that room to take my place in the world. She would hug my children to her bosom. She would warm the bed of my husband. She would live and die without ever having been born, only created by the hands and the magic of an artist who peered into secrets too profound.
The same magic that imprisoned me in a truly perfect painting, with its aura of mystery.
I have seen the sun rise and set too many times beyond this glass that separates me from the world. I have seen wars and diseases bear down on my people, the glory of kings and their fall in a bloody Revolution. I have been in sumptuous castles and in rooms behind a braided red cordon. I have been abducted and even pelted with acid and stones. But I am still here, and I ask myself what meaning can all of this have? In what way have I offended Our Lord to deserve such a fate? I loved my sisters and my brothers. I respected my parents. I was faithful to my husband. I gave birth to five splendid children. I lived a pious life, and attended mass in the Churches of Santo Spirito, Santa Trinita, and Santa Croce.
And my home no longer exists, my loved ones buried long ago. Only my name has remained.
It is the eternal echo of a grief that drives me mad, and leaves me encased in solitude, beneath the stares of strangers, as the seasons scroll by.
I cannot die. Oh, if you only knew how much I have desired it! I no longer feel hunger or thirst. I am a spectre without peace. The hourglass of time has stopped for me and in your eyes is reflected my timeless face, simulacrum of eternal damnation, touched by that enigmatic smile.
My fate bitterly mocks me. Not even weeping is granted me. Even though I feel stranded in enduring misery, I have to continue to smile.
As you scrutinize my smile, your eyes betray just how fascinated and frightened you are by my presence. I know that you feel it, even if you call it the mystery or magic of art. I know that in your most hidden unconscious, contemplating me moves you. You feel that my eyes follow you wherever you place yourselves in this room. They follow you, while you file before me in throngs on the other side of the red rope, and then with a vague sense of disquietude as you continue your visit. Centuries separate us as well as the glass of the protective casing, but we have walked on the same earth and experienced the same emotions.
Perhaps you would not have acted differently in my place.
O strangers from a world in constant flux, I only ask you this: Live for those who no longer have such fortune. Smile for real, in keeping with your deepest wishes. And remember Madonna Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.
Or simply Mona Lisa.