It’s wonderful how much you can learn, when ‘merely’ reading for pleasure. In her new book Smile, for Barrington Stoke, Mary Hoffman tells us the truth about how the famous Mona Lisa portrait came to be. Or at least her truth, since we can’t truly know, but there have been countless guesses over the centuries.
I like this one. It’s mostly about Lisa herself, and much less about the man she calls Leonardo, and who I think of as da Vinci. That’s what makes the story feel real.
So Smile is more a history lesson in how Italian women lived five hundred years ago, and then only women of a certain class. Lisa’s family was noble, but poor, so she had to marry well, meaning Lisa married a wealthy widower, who hankered after a noble wife.
It’s heartrending learning about the inevitability of a new baby every year, and the hopes that the baby will survive infancy.
And on the side, we have Lisa’s friendships with both Leonardo and Michelangelo. I had forgotten the two men were active in the same place at the same time, even if there was an age gap of twenty years. It’s the sheer normality of Lisa’s life among these greats that make for such a fascinating story.
Although personally I have never stopped to ponder the famous smile. It just is.