I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press. The book was originally published in German in 1937 and this English version has been translated by Ignat Avsey
This book is a very slim volume and can be read in an hour or so. It attempts to answer the question that has been nagging historians and artists for centuries: Who, exactly, was the woman Mona Lisa that Da Vinci made so famous in his painting? In this plot it is a French aristocrat that becomes obsessed with the mysterious woman in Da Vinci’s painting.
In 1502, King Louis XII of France has dispatched his Marshal Louis de La Trémouille and a small army of men to Florence in order to acquire fine art. They, of course, stop at Leonardo’s famous home and workshop on their artistic quest. Leonardo is a humorous figure in the brief plot as he is portrayed as a man with a very short attention span. He goes from one project to the next without ever completely finishing anything. As Trémouille and his men are wandering around Leonardo’s home, one of them discovers a painting of a woman behind a curtain. Leonardo assures the young nobleman, Bougainville, that the painting is unfinished and not worth so much attention. But Bougainville is instantly obsessed with the woman in the painting and has convinced himself that he is desperately in love with her.
The only facts about Mona Lisa that Bougainville can get out of Leonardo is that she was the wife of a man named Giocondo and died a couple of years ago when there was an outbreak of plague in the city. Bougainville cannot believe that this amazing woman is dead so he goes to visit her grave at Santa Croce. The small size of the space in which she is supposed to be buried convinces him that she could not possibly be buried in this tomb. He gathers together a few of his men and comes back to the church under the cover of darkness and digs up Mona Lisa’s grave.
When Bougainville finds that her tomb is in fact empty he is determined to figure out this mystery and is convinced that she is still alive. His efforts to find her cause mayhem and fighting between the Florentines and the French. Bougainville believes that Giocondo, Mona Lisa’s husband, is holding her hostage somewhere in the city and the French nobleman does some rash and brazen things to find her. He is certain beyond a doubt that she will be his lover either in this life or the next.
I thoroughly enjoyed this short book because of the characterization of Da Vinci and the little mystery surrounding the empty tomb of Mona Lisa. When written records and archaeological evidence are scarce it is amusing to project our own stories onto the lives of famous men from generations past.
About the Author:
Alexander Lernet-Holenia was an Austrian poet, novelist, dramaturgist and writer of screenplays and historical studies who produced a heterogeneous literary opus that included poesy, psychological novels describing the intrusion of otherworldly or unreal experiences into reality, and recreational films.