The first thing every portrait painter learns is: when the eyes change, so, too, does the mouth. It was this immutable fact that was making life hard for Leonardo da Vinci.
Every day, sometimes every hour, Mona Lisa’s eyes changed and with every change Leonardo was forced to make small adjustments. Most people wore an expression of guardedness while in front of a portrait painter. This suited Leonardo. It freed him to create whatever flattering expression he chose. A painter quickly went hungry if the portraits he painted were not flattering. This was the second thing every portrait painter learned: no one commissioned the truth.
Mona Lisa’s face constantly shimmered and transformed; the subtle play of her expressions was as wondrous, as variant, as light on water. Every shift was another veil dropping. Leonardo was fascinated. He had never been so thrilled, so challenged, so daunted by a painting before.
Of course, he could have just painted a likeness of Mona Lisa, collected his money and been done with it. But this woman was not just sitting for him, impatiently waiting for him to be finished: she was revealing herself to him. How then could he just paint her features, arranged prettily?
When he was alone, during the evenings, he sometimes gazed at the unfinished canvas and felt afraid. Afraid the challenge was too great, afraid he could not do it. Instead of the planes and angles, the highlights and shadows of Mona Lisa’s face coming into focus, they remained stubbornly elusive. Leonardo was spending more and more time on the background, creating a fantastical landscape into which he poured his frustration.
He took frequent breaks during the day: not from fatigue but from exasperation with all that failed to emerge from his brush. During these breaks he wanted to sit with Mona Lisa and talk quietly. He longed for her voice to pour over him, to soothe him. But always she left the studio, preferring to walk in the garden with her maid.
Other than the polite exchanges they shared when she arrived every morning and left every afternoon, she hardly spoke to him. Normally this would have delighted Leonardo. He hated the incessant chatter that usually arose from people who sat for him. But the quietness that surrounded Mona Lisa was deep and tantalizing, the very air surrounding her scented with secrets.
She evaded all but the most direct questions. He was able to extract only the barest facts of her life. Leonardo was not a loquacious man, quite the opposite actually, but in desperation he found himself chatting away like a servant on market day to her. And not just of ordinary things, but of his ideas about art and science; of the possibilities he knew existed, and the mysteries still to be solved. Mona Lisa listened attentively, or appeared to. But still she shared nothing of herself; her thoughts remained as guarded as treasure.
Eventually Leonardo forced himself to abandon the painting’s background. When he set to work on her face again he saw it had changed. He had expected this, but was not prepared for the look of amusement that glinted in her eyes. Was she laughing at him? After all he had confessed? Suddenly exhausted, Leonardo laid down his brush and told her to go home. She left reluctantly, looking wounded and disappointed. Leonardo was confused. Only later, after the sun had set and his studio was growing dark, did he guess the truth: she had fallen in love with him. It had not been amusement on her face, but adoration. This was his chance to paint a woman in love.
The next morning she arrived looking calm but Leonardo was not fooled. He set straight to work, painting so quickly he felt possessed. At the end of the day he was able to say, “It is finished.”
“I will tell my husband. He will come and pay you,” she said, turning away.
“Don’t you want to see it?”
She was already to the studio door. They might never see each other again. She shrugged. “It is to be hung in our house. I will have all my life to look at it,” she answered and left.
That night Leonardo slept badly; her name repeated itself in his dreams, each round vowel ringing like an erotic bell. In the morning Mona Lisa’s husband arrived. He was a fat, coarse man with a sprinkling of dandruff decorating both shoulders. Leonardo led him to the easel where the painting waited. He gazed at it in disbelief before shouting, “I will not pay for this!”
“She looks bored! This is the way she looks when the servants complain or my mother comes for a visit. No man wants a portrait of his wife looking this way. He sees her like this far too much as it is! You are supposed to be the best painter in all of Italy and this is what you paint? I will find someone else to paint my wife’s portrait!” He stormed out of the studio, letting the door bang rudely shut behind him.
Leonardo’s eyes met Mona Lisa’s painted ones. Had he been wrong? No answer lurked there. Perhaps he should take a break from painting. Maybe accept the French king’s invitation and go to France. But was he an artist? Or was he nothing more than a jumble of ideas he could make no one understand? His head hurt and he felt exhausted. Somewhere beyond his window a crow cawed. He had felt so sure he was right. Maybe he was wrong about everything: Mona Lisa; art; science; life; love. All of it.
Mona Lisa stared out from the canvas, aloof as a goddess, offering no help.
Lori Ann Bloomfield lives in Toronto, Canada. When not reading or writing she can be found cooking great vegan food, riding her bike or daydreaming.