Because Leonardo's "Mona Lisa " was in the news recently, I thought to dig out a story I wrote some years ago. I was in an art history course at Kwantlen University, (where I also work), and to my great delight, the instructor offered that we might write a story about a Renaissance masterpiece in place of a carefully documented essay.
I happily rattled off this tale...
As she was wont to do in times of stillness, Lisa surrendered her thoughts to childhood. It was easy, here in her parent’s house, to look back on the past. The warm air around her, heavily sweet with the scent of wisteria, was the same air she had delighted in as a child. The verdant slopes that rolled lazily away from the villa’s doors were the same lush hills she had roamed so frequently as to know them by heart.
She pictured herself, once more, in the middle of her father’s vineyard, tracing with her eyes the orderly rows that stretched away from her on the south-facing slope. They seemed to her nearly endless, snaking lithely down the hillside, only to merge at last with the silver strands of olive trees in the valley below. She knew if she turned left, she would find herself in a meadow flush with wild poppies and sun-baked grass; if she went right, she would come to the kitchen garden where multi-hued clumps of lavender and thyme eagerly released their pungent odors as one brushed against them.
Watching over all was Villa Vignamaggio, whose gold-tinged glow spoke both of the sun going down and of the warm haven that waited within. It had been the center of the earth for her, this land her father owned and the home he had built on it for his family.
Dimly, she became aware of outside music nudging its way into her reverie, but Lisa brushed it aside. She heard only the sound of ivy-clad cypress trees tugged about by the wind and the ever-present rustling of grape vines heavy with the need to shed their bounty. This was the music of the earth; this was her concert and she needed no other. It was surely this sense of belonging to the land she felt nowhere else, that had made her request the portrait sittings be done at the family villa. She had come home to a place that some part of her had never left.
Abruptly, a startled squeal rent the air, forcing her back to the present. A small striped kitten leaped nimbly onto her knee, to then nestle deeply into the velvet folds of her gown. It was not hard to deduce that her youngest pet had worn out his welcome with the massive wolfhound sprawled tiredly across the feet of his mistress.
Lisa stifled a smile and resisted an urge to fondle the purring bundle in her lap. Signore Da Vinci was most stringent and would not wish her to ruin the pose he had so carefully crafted. She had found herself inordinately pleased when he’d told her she was the only woman he knew capable of sitting still for any length of time: he was not one inclined to bestow his compliments lightly.
She tried to catch the master’s eyes, hoping to find approval there, but he remained hunched behind his easel, lost to everything but the process of putting paint to panel.
The afternoon sun slowly slanted its way out of sight. Servants lit candles that gently filled the room with light and warmth, and still Lisa remained on the balcony where she had been seated, her arms resting on the balustrade, her back to the sky. She felt a chill run across her shoulder as the evening air took on dampness. Nights in the hills were as cold as the afternoons were warm: it was this balance that made the grapes grow succulent and fat.
From the corner of her eye she could see a bright fire built by the workmen at the edge of the fields. Stoked with trimmings from the olive trees, it carved out a fragrant sanctuary in the gathering darkness. Frequently as a child, she had sat beside such fires, comforted by the easy laughter of the labourers, content at the end of their long work hours. Inevitably, the day came when her mother took her to task for doing so.
“It is unseemly for one of your station to frolic with the peasants as you do, young lady. I will not have it...do you understand? Why, I’ve been told you even go to the cellars to see how the wine is made.”
Lisa opened her mouth to speak of the pleasure she took from the damp brick floors and the smell of fermenting grapes; but her mother cut her off before she could get out a sound.
“Such nonsense! That is men’s work and none of your affair. You need only concern yourself with learning to run a household so that your servants do not cheat you, and your husband may be assured of returning each day to a home that is well-ordered and inviting.”
Lisa tried to respond, but was again forestalled.
“Enough!” came the admonishment. “You will fetch your embroidery and we will speak no more of this matter.”
Lisa turned away in tight-lipped dejection. As she started across the terracotta floor, her mother’s voice carried after her clearly.
“You are not beautiful, daughter,” came the oft-heard reminder. “It is true that where beauty is missing, a humble and dutiful nature may nicely take its place - yet, as you are neither humble nor dutiful, I despair of making a suitable match for you. Is your father to support you all his days?”
Lisa’s fine eyebrows rose sharply and she turned back in indignation.
“Why, I shall support myself, of course,” she responded adamantly. “I do not need a husband for that. Indeed, I do not see what need I have of a husband at all.”
A short gasp escaped her mother’s lips, and in the charged silence that followed, Lisa watched the colour drain from the rouged cheeks; saw the lips take on a paleness that was never allowed. That gasp was followed by one of equal surprise from Lisa as her mother’s hands shot out to grab her by the shoulders and give her a hard shake.
“Insolent girl! Do not get above yourself, or no one will have you.”
In spite of this dire prediction, Lisa made a good match when her time came to marry. Though Francesco del Giocondo came with no title, it pleased Lisa’s mother well that he was wealthy and much respected for his role in civic politics. He had become the city’s leading silk merchant: Signora Gherardini never passed up a chance to tell anyone who might listen that her son-in-law supplied the finest bolts of silk to the leading citizens of Florence, foremost among them, the Medici family. Moreover, with fabric as Francesco’s stock-in-trade, she was, herself, able to wear gowns of stunning opulence. Why her daughter continued to dress so plainly, when hers might have been the finest wardrobe in the province was beyond all understanding.
For her part, Lisa surprised herself by coming to love the older Francesco. She believed him to be a better husband than most. He solicited her opinions, and listened thoughtfully when she spoke of things that ventured beyond the domestic. Never had he treated her as anything but an equal. She had borne him three handsome children, though her heart ached always for the daughter she would not see grown, and would never forget.
A cloud seemed to pass over her soul and left its reflection in her eyes. She simply could not accept that her late child would remain lost to her forever,
Once, when Signore da Vinci stopped work to jot a note in his well-thumbed journal, Lisa had been unable to stop herself from asking what he was writing. Without looking up, he’d replied absently, “I am observing that to plunge things into light is to plunge them into the infinite.”
It had taken her breath away, that sentence. She’d understood instinctively that the breadth of life was more than she could see, more than she could even imagine. She’d felt the wholeness of it, the knowledge that all was one; that nothing was ever truly lost. If hope had a voice, it lay in the words she had just heard.
A sudden stillness brought her back to the present, where Signore Da Vinci had put aside her brush and was watching her with studied intensity. As she met his look with her own frank and open one, his hands rhythmically stroked his long beard and the air between them cracked with life.
“Ah, Mia Dona,” the old painter at last crooned. “You are not entirely of this world, I think.”
Lisa felt the shadow lift from her eyes. Once more, a scolding voice seemed to fill her head. Lisa had come home on the summer afternoon of her twelfth birthday to find herself in trouble yet again.
“Lisa – where is your cap?” her mother had demanded harshly. “Are your guests to arrive and find you with damp, flushed cheeks and stains on your bodice?”
Lisa had sighed impatiently at the familiar tone, which made Signore Gherardini angrier.
“Do not scowl in that unladylike manner,” she’d continued, pulling twigs from Lisa’s loose hair. “What I tell you is for your own good. You will earn no one’s admiration if you do not learn to temper your bold ways.”
Lisa’s face twitched at the remembrance of her mischievous ways, knowing that the feisty girl was not as far removed as some might imagine from the respectable matron she’d become. Now, as then, she tilted her chin resolutely forward, slid her eyes slowly aside to focus on a point only she could see, and allowed the corners of her mouth to pull up in the smallest of smiles.
Signore da Vinci said nothing more but with a twist of his own lips, took up a brush to capture the light and the life that lay in that elusive smile.