"Radical and refreshing." Review—Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting by Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti

The sober truth about the Mona Lisa’s origins is explored in this new book
June 21, 2017
Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting by Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti (OUP, £19.99)

According to some art historians, she was the artist’s assistant, Salaì, dressed in drag; according to others, she was a prostitute. Or perhaps the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, or even an extra-terrestrial. There’s a seemingly endless supply of theories about who Leonardo da Vinci’s sitter for the Mona Lisa was. Da Vinci scholar Martin Kemp and archival researcher Giuseppe Pallanti say that’s because people believe “such a famed and fascinating image must have originated in extraordinary circumstances.”

The book’s myth-busting authors insist, however, that the official view is correct: the subject was Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine textile merchant Francesco del Giocondo, the man who had commissioned her portrait. Trawling through tax surveys, church records and property deeds, they disclose information about all the key players. When Lisa and Francesco married, for instance, the Gherardini family lived across the road from Leonardo’s father, the notary Ser Piero da Vinci. According to a note by a clerk in Florence’s government—for whom da Vinci was then painting the mural, The Battle of Anghiari, in Palazzo Vecchio—the artist was working on a portrait of one “Lisa del Giocondo” in October 1503.

Da Vinci, having recently returned to Florence after two decades away, was keen to re-establish his reputation. Kemp and Pallanti argue that he never delivered Francesco his painting because it was less important to him than his grand, civic commissions such as Anghiari.

This well-researched book is also highly readable: after so many bunkum theories, the sober truth about the Mona Lisa’s origins comes across as surprisingly radical and refreshing.