The Second Mrs Gioconda

Picked up E. L. Konigsberg's The Second Mrs Gioconda at the library book sale several moons ago after reading and very much enjoying From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, and I finally got around to reading it -- threw it into my handbag when I needed a slim volume to take on a tram trip.

What a delightful little book this was. In just over a hundred pages, we explore the relationship between the great Renaissance artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, his (real) apprentice Salai, and the (real) Duchess of Milan, Beatrice d'Este, who is used to being the plain second choice to her beautiful older sister. Beatrice and Salai form a bond of shared mischief and delight, despite the difference in their social stations. When Beatrice dies at only 22, Salai grieves; but he finds some solace in encouraging Leonardo to paint the portrait of the humble merchant's wife, the second Mrs Gioconda, who possesses the same inner beauty and outward plainness as their lost Beatrice. Of course, this portrait will become perhaps the most famous painting of all time, known to us as the Mona Lisa.

It's an interesting and plausible thesis, and Konigsberg makes clever use of Leonardo's artwork, included at the back of the book, to support her story. A wonderful introduction to Leonardo, Renaissance Italy, and some magnificent pieces of art. I would have loved reading this when I studied European History for HSC, a long long time ago; it had been published nine years before.

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