Antonello, Arthurian Legend, Balan, Balin, Columbus, Cosimo de' Medici, Excalibur, Giorgione, Holy Roman Emperor, Isabella Losa, Joanna the Mad, Lady of the Lake, Leonardo da Vinci, Leonello d'Este, Malatesta, Mona Lisa, Raphael, Salai, Uccello
Contrary to all we have been told for 500 years, the Mona Lisa was not the wife of a merchant. She was a member of Leonardo’s close family. But which?
‘Lisa’ is short for Elisabetta, as we see written on her head, and therein lies a clue. His mother once used the name – Elisabetta Mini – but she was murdered by her husband in 1485, and wasn’t there to be painted. And he had a sister called Elisabetta, who married the artist Antonello da Messina (and had two very famous children: Giorgione and Raphael), but her father murdered her too, in 1491. And then Leonardo had a daughter of that name, born in 1468, but she also died an untimely death (Leonardo thought at the hands of his assistant Melzi). And as if this were not enough, with gross disregard for the headaches of art historians, when his son Pedro Alvares (PA) had a daughter, he named her in the family tradition, and so Leonardo’s granddaughter was also called Elisabetta.
But which one of the four was our Mona Lisa? In 1512, when it was painted, only his granddaughter was still alive, and she would have been 19. Working from life, she seems the only option. But what if he worked from an old sketch? His mother was 48 when she died, his sister 32; his daughter 47. It could have been any of them.
A further clue is to be found in her eyes. This is the place we find what the artist thought the person was looking at. And this Elisabetta was watching Leonardo’s two granddaughters, Elisabetta Junior (who married his apprentice Salai), and Isabella. So it would seem that the Mona Lisa was not his granddaughter. Who was she then?
Fortunately Leonardo tells us. Given the number of cracks in the surface, they are exceptionally hard to make out, but the words can be found… ‘Elisabetta van Eyck, Nata 1468, Morta 1507, Figlia de Leonardo’. She was his daughter, and that is why he refused to be parted from the picture: it was the only way he had to keep her forever with him.
But is that all? Just a remembrance? No, the painting is far deeper than this. It is hard to see in the gloom of centuries, but the Mona Lisa is seated in a beautifully carved chair, a throne indeed. And it has two names written on it, and the first is ‘Maria Antonia’: it is the throne of Leonardo’s mother. Mona Lisa, it would seem, was taking on her grandmother’s role in life, seated on her throne.
But what role was this? The men of the family were seeking fortune by finding new routes to the Indies, and launching that most appalling of all human crimes, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But the ladies had a different and ultimately more powerful strategy, and Leonardo’s mum was the pioneer.
Although she called herself Elisabetta Mini, she mostly went by the name of Maria Antonia, the daughter of a king, and the granddaughter of Jan van Eyck. And as such she was a prize catch for all those with political ambitions. In 1444, at the age of just seven, the family promised her to Leonello, the Marquis of Ferrara, but there were two other young men who really wanted her, too, both members of her family.
The first was Paolo Uccello, charming and kind – the other was Arturo Eyck, cold and psychopathic. And they hated one another. Maria Antonia first eloped with Paolo, and bore him two children. Then her mother decided Arturo would be the better bet, and so he cleared the way by murdering her husband Leonello, and with him gone, then married the girl. The following year the first child was born Arturo could be sure was his: a man we know as Christopher Columbus. Maria Antonia detested Arturo, though, and it wasn’t long before she met up again with Paolo, and the two had another child together. To begin with Arturo thought the child was his, and recognised him as his heir. The boy’s name is legendary: Leonardo… da Vinci (‘Vinci’ = ‘you win’). And over the next ten years, she had more children by both Arturo and Paolo. And then they abandoned her.
So she then bore children for two of the most powerful men in Italy: the banker and ruler of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici – and Sigismondo Malatesta, the boss of Rimini. She may have hoped her children would acquire great influence through these fathers, but the only one to achieve any political power was the man we know as Machiavelli.
And so Elisabetta, Leonardo’s daughter, is sitting on the throne of Maria Antonia, the courtesan, and making dynastic plans of which we sadly know nothing. OK. But we said the throne bore two names, so what was the other? The other is the one that tells the real story. ‘Nimue’.
You may not recognize the name, but you have met her before. Nimue was the legendary ‘Lady of the Lake’, the guardian of Excalibur, which she gave to King Arthur. It is an allusion to Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’, which was first published in 1485, the year Maria Antonia was murdered. And everyone who could, read it. It was a best seller. But how does Excalibur fit into our tale? Well, Excalibur was the ‘weapon’ that Maria Antonia had wrongly thought Cosimo and Sigismondo would bring to the party! (Think metaphorically!)
Can we be sure it refers to King Arthur, though? Yes. In the ‘Morte d’Arthur’, where it tells of Merlin’s origins, we read of a tower that, for all the efforts of its lord to erect, continually fell over. This tower, here bearing the name of Leonardo’s family, ‘Eyck’, appears lower left, in the same area as Africa. And writhing in the sandy ‘lake’ beneath we see the reason for its collapse. Two dragons are battling it out, as in the Arthurian legend. But who are they?
There is another tale later in the book of two knights who, unaware they are brothers, kill one another… knights called Balin and Balan. Leonardo conflates the two stories together, and names the dragons in the painting Balin and Balan, and identifies them as Arturo and Paolo Uccello, whose struggle for the affections of Maria Antonia brought death to many of the greatest names in their family. And just to be sure we got the message, he writes ‘Maleore’ by her elbow – one of the ways ‘Malory’ was written in those far away days.
But what of Excalibur? What sword could the latest Ladies of the Lake bring? Granddaughter Elisabetta fell in love and married Salai, bringing Leonardo’s dynastic ambitions for her to nought; but Isabella, his second granddaughter, surprised everyone. Her Excalibur had no equal… she became the lover of Philip of Burgundy, a Hapsburg.
And he was important because he had married a princess, Joanna, third in line to the Spanish throne. True to tradition, the family helped remove her obstacles. First to go was Prince Juan, her brother, who died in the arms of none other than Leonardo’s brother in law, the boy’s tutor. And the following year her elder sister died, it was said, in childbirth. And the baby, replacing her as heir, not surprisingly did not make it beyond the age of two.
And so it was that when her mother also mysteriously died in 1504, Joanna became Queen of Castile and Leon, and Philip became King. Alas, though, whether by her choice, or Philip’s, or even that of fate, she bore him no children. And since her survival as Queen demanded an heir, Philip persuaded her to accept the children Isabella bore him as her own. It drove the poor girl crazy, and she became known as ‘Joanna the Mad’… but the benefit for Leonardo’s family was vast.
Isabella’s two sons became the Holy Roman Emperors Charles V, and Ferdinand I. And her four daughters became the Queens of Portugal, France, Hungary and Denmark. Ironically, members of the family acquired far greater power from this than from those who made money from the enslavement of two continents.
And her name? Isabella, as we said. She was famed as a doctor of theology and medicine… and her full name? Isabella Losa. She was the Mona Losa.