Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s playful novella Mona Lisa from Pushkin Press capitalizes on the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting by focusing on the facts and then cleverly blurring the details. The result is a delightful little tale centered on the alluring Mona Lisa smile, obsession, and the human desire to build a narrative around any mystery.
It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and we’re in the middle of the Second Italian War. King Louis XII sends one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille to Milan where he is supposed to raise an army, go to Naples and offer relief to the French governors who are fighting the Spanish. There’s a big speech, full of pompous grandiosity from King Louis XII which boils down to the fact that the only thing Louis de la Trémoille is getting from the king is his blessing. The king stares “for a while into the indeterminate middle distance past the Marshal with the vacant expression of one who at all costs refuses to talk of money.” The Marshal is supposed to finance the campaign somehow:
“I trust that you will also take the opportunity of recouping the cost of this campaign. Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command. And so,” concluded the King, “goodbye and may god go with you!”
So Trémoille leaves for Italy with just a “few inconsequential counts and minor noblemen.” The First Italian War was a very lucrative affair, but the Second Italian War isn’t a booty-filled operation, and poor Trémoille “was barely able to send to Paris anything of note.” He has to “content himself with fleecing the smaller towns” and decided to “concentrate on the purchase of objects of art.” This is how Da Vinci enters the picture.
Da Vinci is portrayed as a distracted genius, far more sophisticated and intelligent than Trémoille. While trying to catch a fly inside Da Vinci’s workshop, one of Trémoille’s entourage, a certain Monsieur de Bougainville, discovers the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. He falls in love with the woman depicted in the portrait and is determined to track her down….
The book plays into the mythology that’s grown around the painting, and at the same time, the narrative creates mystery and mythology of its own. Bougainville, dangerously obsessed and determined to discover the identity of the woman known as La Gioconda, takes Leonardo da Vinci’s words and builds a whole story around the woman who posed for the portrait. Da Vinci is frustratingly vague about his model:
“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth us, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.”
This is a very light, bubbly read, and although there are some very serious consequences to Bougainville’s obsession, the story never deviates from its comic stance. De Vinci seems mystified by the French soldiers, their desire for booty, and Bougainville’s determination to create a palatable narrative regarding the model for his painting. The novella is written in such a way that readers connect with the rather bemused and distracted Da Vinci. Why is this Frenchman so determined to ‘save’ the woman who may or who may not have been the model for painting? After all, according to Da Vinci, the portrait is of an idealized woman. What is all this fuss about?
Translated by Ignat Avsey