The face that launched a thousand copies

In 2005, a wooden object more than 500 years old was moved to a new location in the largest art museum in the world. It was a small portrait of an obscure Florentine gentlewoman, painted on a thin panel of poplar and known to the world as the Mona Lisa.

That same year, an expert at the University Library of Heidelberg discovered a marginal note in a book in the library’s collection confirming the long-held view that the portrait was of Lisa Gherardini, who had married the businessman Francesco del Giocondo. Written by Agostino Vespucci in 1503, the note confirms that Leonardo da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

Mona_LisaAfter 500 years, the Mona Lisa was in desperate need of cleaning. But the Louvre balked at removing the patina of half a millennium, including a thick coat of lacquer misguidedly applied by a 17th century Dutch restorer. Cleaning is, apparently, out of the question and admirers – some 1,500 an hour at peak times – must contend with a layer of grime that obscures Leonardo’s original vision.

But that’s nothing to the dust layered on Lisa Gherardini, the original Mona Lisa, a record of whose death was discovered in 2007 by Giuseppe Pallanti, author of Mona Lisa Revealed. After Francesco del Giocondo died in 1538, his widow took up residence in the nunnery where their youngest daughter had taken vows – located close to the family home. Upon her death in 1542, Mona Lisa Gherardini was reportedly buried not in the del Giocondo crypt in Florence’s Basilica of Santissima Annunziata, but at the convent of Sant’ Orsola.

Sant’Orsola, deconsecrated under Napoleon in the early 1800s, served as a tobacco processing plant and university lecture hall before deteriorating into a hulking, boarded-up, graffiti-smeared ruin. Branded “the shame of Florence”, Florentines have long campaigned for it to be cleaned up.

FlorenceBut was Lisa del Giocondo really buried there? Since hundreds of women lived and died at Sant’Orsola, the only way to find out is by matching DNA from bones or teeth to that of a known blood relative. The prime candidate is Mona Lisa’s oldest biological son Piero del Giocondo, who died in 1569 aged 73 and was buried in Santissima Annunziata.

Now for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. After successive digs and analysis comparing bone DNA, scientists now suspect that the record is wrong and Lisa may yet be found in the Santissima Annunziata basilica, having been moved there after Sant’Orsola was rebuilt in 1640, a century after her death. Or not. At that time, many remains were removed entirely and reburied outside the city. Nevertheless, in 2014, a small hole was cut into the family tomb in order to begin the search…

For the real woman, turn to the marvellously written and highly informative Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (2014) by Dianne Hales. “A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her. An emperor coveted her. Poets lauded her. Singers crooned of her. Advertisers exploited her.” Not one of them knew who she really was and Hales sets the record straight. But finding her body, if it is not lost for all eternity, will not change the face that has captivated so many for so long.

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