Today is the birthday (1479) of Lisa del Giocondo an Italian noblewoman and member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany whose portrait was commissioned by her husband from Leonardo da Vinci, and is now known in English as Mona Lisa (in Italian it is called La Gioconda).
On March 5th 1495, 15-year-old Lisa Gherardini married Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a modestly successful cloth and silk merchant, becoming his third wife. Lisa’s dowry was 170 florins and a farm near her family’s country home, which lies between Castellina and San Donato in Poggio, near two farms later owned by Michelangelo. The modest dowry may be a sign that the Gherardini family was not wealthy at the time and lends reason to think she and her husband loved each other. Neither poor nor among the most well-to-do in Florence, the couple lived a middle-class life. Lisa’s marriage may have increased her social status because her husband’s family may have been richer than her own. Francesco is thought to have benefited because Gherardini is an “old name.” They lived in shared accommodation until 5th March 1503, when Francesco was able to buy a house next door to his family’s old home in the Via della Stufa. Leonardo is thought to have begun painting Lisa’s portrait the same year.
Lisa and Francesco had five children: Piero, Camilla, Andrea, Giocondo, and Marietta, four of them between 1496 and 1507. Lisa lost a baby daughter in 1499. Lisa also raised Bartolomeo, the son of Francesco and his first wife Camilla di Mariotto Rucellai, who died shortly after the birth. In June 1537, in his will – among many provisions – Francesco returned Lisa’s dowry to her, gave her personal clothing and jewelry and provided for her future. Upon entrusting her care to their daughter Ludovica and, should she be incapable, his son Bartolomeo, Francesco wrote, “Given the affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife; in consideration of the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife; wishing that she shall have all she needs…” Touching. He probably died of plague the following year.
The Mona Lisa fulfilled late 15th and early 16th century requirements for portraying a woman of virtue. Lisa is portrayed as a faithful wife through gesture—her right hand rests over her left. Leonardo also presented Lisa as fashionable and successful, perhaps more well-off than she was. Her dark garments and black veil were Spanish-influenced high fashion; they are not a depiction of mourning for her first daughter, as some scholars have proposed. The painting is large in comparison with similar portraits of the era, although to the modern eye it seems small. Visitors to the Louvre frequently comment on how small it is in comparison with what they imagined.
Lisa del Giocondo was always suspected to be the sitter in the portrait, but there was always a degree of doubt until 2005 when an expert at the University Library of Heidelberg discovered a margin note in the library’s collection that established with certainty the traditional view that the sitter was Lisa. The note, written by Agostino Vespucci in 1503, states that Leonardo was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.
The Mona Lisa now has its own dedicated room in the Louvre which is always packed with people. Before the room was set aside for the painting it could take hours standing in line to get a glimpse. Getting to the front of the crowd is hard work, but not nearly as long as lines in the past, and the painting is up high enough that you can see it even from the back of the room. It has always bemused me that the Mona Lisa is called “the most famous painting in the world” and, in consequence, is always mobbed, while thousands upon thousands of great works of art displayed in the Louvre go virtually unnoticed. What are people expecting when they see “the most famous painting in the world”? I suspect it’s more like “the most recognizable painting in the world” – and almost no one who visits it has the slightest idea why. It’s popular because it’s popular.
Mona Lisa has been the subject of endless parodies because it is so recognizable. Marcel Duchamp’s Dada-esque LHOOQ (a crude pun if you know French) is one of the most well known, but there are plenty of others.
I discovered a dish online called fettucine Mona Lisa which you can find also if you care to. It’s neither Italian nor 15th century, so I passed on it for this post. Instead, here is a chickpea soup from libro de arte coquinaria by maestro Martino de Como, written some time in the late 15th century. It is called red chickpea soup because the raw chickpeas are red, not the resultant soup. Thanks to Franco Cattafesta on Facebook for helping me sort out what cioè del fiore means (highly refined flour), as well as a couple of other puzzles. Otherwise, the clumsy translation is my own. Parsley root may need a bit of explaining for Anglos. It is a version of parsley, Petroselinum crispum, with a tuberous root that looks like parsnip, but tastes quite different. I always buy it whenever I see it in the market. I would be inclined to use a meat broth rather than water to cook the chickpeas, and make sure you have enough — three “bocali” is probably somewhat over three liters, but the measure varied from city to city. Make sure the soup is not watery, though, when cooked. It should be hearty.
Brodo de ciceri rosci
Per farne octo menestre: togli una librra et meza di ciceri et lavali con acqua calda et poneli in quella pignatta dove gli vorrai cocere et che siano sciutti et mettevi meza oncia di farina, cioè del fiore, et mettevi pocho olio et bono, et un pocho di sale, et circha vinti granelli di pepe rotto, et un pocha di canella pista, et mena molto bene tute queste cose inseme con le mani. Dapoi ponivi tre bocali d’acqua et un pocha di salvia, et rosmarino, et radici di petrosillo, et fagli bollire tanto che siano consumati a la quantitade di octo menestre. Et quando sono quasi cotti mitivi un pocho d’oglio. Et se lo brodo si facesse per ammalati non gli porre né spetie.
Red chickpea soup
To make eight portions: take a pound and a half of chickpeas and wash them in hot water, drain them, then put them in the pot they will be cooked in. Add half an ounce of very fine flour, a little good oil, a little salt and about twenty crushed peppercorns and a little ground cinnamon, then mix all these things very well together with your hands. Then add three measures of water, a little sage, rosemary, and parsley root, and boil until it is reduced to the quantity of eight portions. When they are almost cooked, add a little garlic. If you prepare this soup for invalids, add neither oil nor spices.