‘I, Mona Lisa'
'I, Mona Lisa' by Natasha Solomons
by Penelope Hester
The cover line on Natasha Solomons’ new novel 'I, Mona Lisa' reads ‘You have seen my smile, now hear my voice.’ This reviewer thinks that is not even close. There is so much more than a voice in this Mona Lisa. She is warm. She is real. She may tell us she is ‘perfect, but never perfected,’ but she is also flawed, a real woman. At times she is variously jealous, outspoken, caring, protective, vulnerable, scared, and of course, hopelessly in love with Leonardo.
When you see her portrait in the Louvre Museum behind its bullet-proof glass surrounded by the milling crowds, she is small. The most famous face in the world, beautiful and enigmatic, it has haunted and confused people for centuries. The words of the 1950s song by Ray Evans spring to mind: ‘Are you warm, are you real Mona Lisa, or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?’ From the novel, she calls back, ‘Yes! He breathed life into me at the end of his brush and I am here.’ And Leonardo agreed, ‘Here you are.’
The story tells of her creation, beginning as a commissioned portrait of the beautiful Lisa del Giocondo, a wealthy merchant’s wife. But as this woman emerged from the layers of paint under the tender hand of Da Vinci, Mona Lisa comes to life – no longer a facsimile of that ‘other woman’ but with her own voice and, of course, those all-seeing eyes.
She moves through Leonardo’s life, set against the background of his bottega. She waits and watches
all around her: his assistants, the petty jealousies, the construction of the innovative scaffold to create a massive painting of the Battle of Anghari in the Hall of Five Hundred, the problems and Leonardo’s despair. This is history, now lost, but vividly reconstructed. He tells her of his frustrations, his disappointments, his aspirations to design human flight. She witnesses his investigation into the structure of the human body and his fractious relationships with Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Leonardo’s love brings Mona Lisa to life, and he refuses to be parted from her.
Only a few with the gift can hear her. One of them is Michelangelo, who she confesses to hate because
he is so supercilious towards Leonardo; another is Leonardo’s faithful assistant Cecco and there are others along the way. But the despised, temperamental lover of Leonardo, Salai, cannot hear.
Mona Lisa soothes, cajoles and comments. Sometimes she insults. At times she pleads for her own wishes, her safety and for the companionship of the beautiful Leda of the painting, Leda and the Swan. She tells us her story, of those who admired her and those who lusted to be her keeper. She recounts the horror of being stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and her removal in 1939, to be safely hidden from German acquisition.
Solomons’ prose is lyrical and her detail immense. No longer can I look at the Mona Lisa without hearing her. But more, now I know her.