National Geographic : 1963 Jun
nIUAnHUM. UY NAIIuN AL G ERAPYnIC PHOIOGRAPHER ROBERI F. 515SON () N.G.S. world. Tell me, please, just what does that smile mean?" A long silence and a continued exposure to that same enigmatic, mysterious, and baffling smile made it evident that I'd get nowhere with that question. Lisa firmly but graciously steered the conversation to her life in Flor ence at the peak of the Renaissance. "Let's see," I said. "You would have been about 13 when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and made his great discovery. Was there much talk about this in Florence?" "No, not at the time," Lisa said, explain ing that news traveled slowly in those days. "But you do know, don't you, Edouard, that your part of the world got its name from one of my townsmen, Amerigo Vespucci?" Lisa then told me her own life story. De liberately, I thought, she ignored the contro versy that surrounds nearly every facet of her history. Had four centuries dimmed her memories, or was she simplifying for me? Her maiden name, she said, was Lisa Gher ardini, and she came from an undistinguished family that could not provide her with a dow ry. When she was 16, it was arranged for her to marry Francesco del Giocondo. 842 "He was rich, twice a widower, and 20 years older than I," Lisa said. "My married name, Giocondo, explains why I am various ly referred to as Madonna Lisa-Mona Lisa, for short-and La Gioconda. The French call me La Joconde." Lisa was 24, and had suffered the loss of her only child, a girl, when her husband com missioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint her. This was in 1503, when Leonardo was 51. He was already famous, and destined to be im mortal if only because of one painting-"The Last Supper." Lisa sat for Leonardo for at least three years-1503-06. She would come to his studio late in the day, when the light is soft and, as Leonardo observed, "gives most grace to faces." As the master painted on the wooden pan el, he had musicians and readers in the studio, so that there would be melody and poetry while she sat with folded hands. The famous lady called my attention to a comment of Leonardo's recent biographer, Antonina Vallentin-that in the Renaissance period people liked "slender women with girl ish faces poised on long, slim necks."