Sometimes, to understand history, you must put yourself in another person’s shoes.
Walk with me…
Pretend for a moment that you are a master painter. You live in fifteenth-century Florence. It takes you over a year to complete a masterpiece. One particular portrait is more important than all the others. This one you tweak when the mood strikes. It will never be finished when you can add another layer of varnish to make it sing. It’s not only a new treatise on portraiture, it’s the likeness of your beloved sister. A sister who died not long after she posed with her hands just so, and her eyes meeting yours in a familiar return of affection.
She inspired you to greater heights, and so the likeness is not only a perfect representation of her true appearance but also her inner beauty. Her expression mirrors her sense of playfulness as much as the sadness she felt when she lost her only child. You’ve painted her life by capturing her very soul on a panel of poplar wood. And in your grief you turn to it. You speak to it the same way a photograph in a locket becomes greater than a treasure – a companion with whom you can share your triumphs. A compassionate face that looks back at you and smiles in celebration or empathy.
When you travel, the painting goes with you. When you set up a new home, it’s there displayed where you can see it. It’s not a formal shrine. It’s more like setting a place at the table for a loved one who is never coming home, begun as a gesture to ease your pain. And before too long it IS your sister. She IS home. You speak with her as if she were in the room, and others hear you.
But you are an eccentric man and revered for your unique abilities. What you do is humored and documented: ‘Leonardo carried one portrait with him everywhere and would not be parted from it’. You are Leonardo da Vinci. The portrait becomes celebrated and known the world over as ‘The Mona Lisa’- the iconic image of your sister, Lisabetta – the woman known as your half-sister Lisabetta Buti. But you know a secret. She is the second lovechild of your mother and Piero da Vinci. Your relationship is as close as twins born six years apart. You taught your kid sister how to paint. She taught you how to survive.
Later, your painting is the most famous face in the world but Lisabetta’s identity is gone. Your sister’s name is lost because you painted another Lisa, and somehow the two women have been mistakenly interchanged. The silk merchant’s wife’s portrait was lost long ago. And now your sister survives as an exquisite portrait, a single line in a forgotten census, and the legend of an old man who carried a portrait to his deathbed… and still, when you leave your body, you will not be parted from her.
Time passes in the otherworld. You can hear Lisa calling. She’s trapped by the very art that created her. You search the world over for five-hundred-years. She searches for you too… and at last you meet again through a chance encounter with an autistic boy visiting a museum. A boy who recognizes truths hidden in the open. He feels the magic of a special day – the five-hundredth anniversary of Lisabetta’s death. But it’s not by chance. Love such as yours never is.
And now ‘The Mona Lisa’ smiles more radiantly as her new journey begins.