The Second Mrs Giaconda by EL Konigsburg, 138 pp RL 5
Written in 1975, The Second Mrs Giaconda is an imagined explanation of how Leonardo da Vinci came to paint his famous work, La Joconde, or the Mona Lisa. As fascinating story, it doesn't have the same immediacy of character or flow that other works by Konigsburg posses. However, it is steeped in fascinating details from the historical period and, though it is a bit harder to connect with and find likable the characters of the story, Konigsburg pulls the threads of their various lives and personalities together in a satisfying ending that begins with the commissioning of the famous portrait.
Obviously the result of much research, Konigsburg begins her story with details from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci concerning an apprentice named Salai. A noted thief, Salai was also left a piece of property with a house on it in Leonardo's will. Konigsburg takes these facts and runs with them, beginning her story with a young, possibly ten year old Salai, cutting the purse from a companion of Leonardo's as they walk down the streets of Milan. The young boy with the golden curls becomes an apprentice in Leonardo's workshop as well as a companion and the sketch from Lenoardo's notebooks that graces the cover of Konigsburg's book is meant to suggest what Salai might have looked like. Several other works of art are represented in the back of the book, including a finished portrait as well as more notebook sketches by Leonardo as well as works of art by other artists representing other historical figures who appear in The Second Mrs Giaconda.
The relationship between Leonardo and the boy Salai is given an explanation and a framework by the presence of Beatrice d'Este, child bride of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, also known as Il Moro, or the Moor, because of his dark skin. Beatrice is wed to the Duke of Milan when he misses his chance to marry her older, more beautiful and witty sister, Isabella, by two weeks. Besides being second choice, Beatrice must also compete with the Duke's long time mistress, Cecelia Gallerini, who has been immortalized in a portrait by Leonardo. When Beatrice, who is only a few years older than the now thirteen year old Salai, mistakes him for a dwarf sent from Mantua by her sister, who breeds them, in a effort to cheer her up, he plays along and they become fast friends. This fact, along with her shinning personality, also leads to a friendship with Leonardo, who finds Beatrice intelligent and in possession of an artistic eye. Soon the three of them are spending evenings together and enjoying themselves so much that others are drawn in and Beatrice becomes the center of a lively, intellectual group of thinkers and artists.
As her happiness grows, so does her attractiveness and the Duke soon takes notice of her and eventually falls in love with her and she with him. When this happens, she and Salai begin to see less and less of each other and Beatrice is gradually changed by her new status. Instead of letting her inner beauty and wit shine through as she once had, Beatrice begins to pile on the jewels and elaborate gowns, ultimately in an attempt to win back her husband's straying attent
ions. In one exchange, while viewing a grand sculpture of a horse that the Duke has commissioned as a memorial to his father, Beatrice explains her dissatisfaction with the piece by pointing out to Salai the importance of his presence in Leonardo's life. Salai does not care about art, does not take it seriously the way the rest of the courtiers do, it is his "rudeness and irresponsibility" that gives Leonardo a "wild element," that something that "leaps and flickers." She goes on to explain that Leonardo is too self-conscious to bring that wild element to his work on his own. He is too serious and too much the perfectionist and it is up to Salai to keep that element present for him. In turn, several months later, Salai is able to offer Beatrice some advice and insight while viewing Leonardo's work in progress at St Marie delle Grazie, his painting of The Last Supper. Wanting to know her opinion of the work, Salai observes that Beatrice is not as happy as she once was, that her "gaiety is too loud. And so is [her] dress. Both are covering up something." To which Beatrice replies, "You were more fun, Salai, before you learned to think."
The story takes a turn after this exchange, at which point I began to realize that, while there was much talk of Leonardo painting Beatrice's portrait and why she would not allow it, and much insistence and begging on the part of her sister, Isabella, for Leonardo to paint her portrait, there was no mention of Mrs Giaconda of Mona Lisa. But, like I said above, Kongisburg finds a way to bring Signor and Signora Giaconda into the story that puts the relationships of Leonardo, Salai and Beatrice into perspective. Whether true or not, Konigsburg has written a fascinating work of historical fiction that introduces children to the multiple geniuses of Leonardo da Vinci as well as the aspects of life during the Italian Renaissance.
For readers who liked this book, I suggest Daughter of Venice by the excellent teen writer, Donna Jo Napoli. Set in 1592, it is the story of Donata, born to a noble family at a time when only the first born daughter marries and all other daughters are sent to live in convents. The story is rich with description of the life of a girl during this time, as well as a superb plot line that takes Donata into the Jewish ghetto disguised as a boy. Also, for younger readers, there is Mary Pope Osborne's Monday with a Mad Genius, Magic Tree House #38, which follows Jack and Annie as they visit Florence, Italy during the Renaissance and have the good fortune to bump into Leonard da Vinci and serve as apprentices as he works on his lost painting, The Battle of Anghiari, for the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, opposite a work that was to be completed by Michelangelo, the only time the two ever worked together. Michelangelo abandoned his painting when he was summoned to Rome to build the tomb for Pope Julius II. Leonardo's was lost due to new techniques he employed during the painting, describe in Monday with a Mad Genius.