Many of us will, on a trip to Paris, have stood in the Louvre in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. We may also know some of the details of the painting’s history – its creation in Renaissance Italy, its theft from the Louvre in 1911. However, this new novel by Natasha Solomons adds a whole new dimension to the Mona Lisa story, taking us inside the mind of the painting itself and showing us the world through the eyes that look out from the portrait. Whether or not you enjoy this book will probably depend on whether you can accept that a painting is narrating the story. If you’re happy with that idea, then I think you’ll find I, Mona Lisa an interesting and entertaining read.
Most of the novel is set in 16th century Florence, during the period when Leonardo is working on his most famous masterpiece. From the painting’s own perspective, we get to know some real historical figures such as Lisa del Giocondo, the woman who sits for the portrait; Michelangelo and Raphael, da Vinci’s rivals; Niccolò Machiavelli, who approaches da Vinci with a scheme to divert the Arno River; and Salaì, a student in Leonardo’s workshop who is jealous of his master’s relationship with Mona Lisa. Although Mona is an inanimate object, she is portrayed in the novel as having the thoughts and feelings of a real woman, with an emotional attachment to her creator Leonardo.
When Leonardo eventually dies, leaving her vulnerable and unprotected, Mona embarks on the journey that will lead her to France. As the centuries go by, she spends time at the court of the Sun King in Fontainebleau and then at Versailles during the French Revolution, before finding her way to the Louvre where, as the 20th century dawns, she forms a new friendship with another great artist.
I, Mona Lisa is an unusual novel and a unique way of exploring some key moments in history. However, because so much time is spent in Renaissance Italy, the parts of the novel set in France feel more rushed and the characters less well developed. This was maybe the author’s intention, as Mona finds it difficult to bond with the people she meets after Leonardo’s death and makes it clear that her heart will always be in Florence, but it also meant that I felt less engaged with these sections of the book.
I do think that if you’re going to write a book about a painting with human emotions, the Mona Lisa is a perfect choice as it’s such a realistic and iconic portrait. The Mona of the novel is obviously very limited in what she can see and experience (and with whom she can communicate – just Leonardo and a handful of other painters and paintings), but Natasha Solomons does a great job of bringing Mona and her world to life. This is the third of her books I’ve read – the others are The Novel in the Viola and House of Gold. Three very different books, but I would recommend any or all of them.
Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 4/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.