Filling in the Gaps: The Stolen Lady by Laura Morelli

BY LEE ANN ECKHARDT SMITH

Art historian and historical novelist Laura Morelli revisits the life of Leonardo da Vinci in her latest novel, The Stolen Lady (William Morrow, 2021). “After assuming the voice of Leonardo in The Night Portrait, (William Morrow, 2020)” Morelli says, “we pick up his story after his arrival in Florence as a mature artist with no commission in sight – until he’s asked to paint the portrait of a certain Lisa.”

The Mona Lisa is of course one of the most fascinating pieces of art in the world. Yet, Morelli explains that for da Vinci, a portrait of a cloth merchant’s wife would have been a “bread-and-butter” project. “I’m sure he would rather have been working on some grand engineering project for a more powerful patron,” she says. “In fact, if Leonardo were to walk into the Louvre today, I think he would be totally baffled! And yet, there is something about this portrait that defies our expectations and I think even Leonardo himself might have begun to see that toward the end of his life.”

It’s clear from historical records that the portrait was never delivered to its patron, Lisa’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo. What is not clear is why. Leonardo kept the painting with him for the rest of his life, and this is one example of where the author takes the facts as far as they can go, then fills in some of the gaps with fiction writing. “I wondered why it was never delivered,” Morelli explains, “and what it was about the picture that might have obsessed the artist so much that he worked on it until his death.”

She even imagines a reason for Lisa’s enigmatic smile. The author remembers seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time at the age of 12, and writing in her diary that something about Lisa’s expression seemed sad. “The idea of the melancholy Lisa stayed with me, and many years later, I still wondered about it. What was behind the enigmatic expression? Just why was Lisa smiling—or perhaps not? Because I couldn’t find any truly satisfactory answers amid the vast scholarship on the Mona Lisa, I began to think about these questions instead as a historical novelist. In considering how to jump from one known historical point to the next, I began to fill in those holes through my own imagination and weave a story that made sense.”

author photo by Davide Mandolini

A significant part of the storyline in this novel concerns the real events surrounding the evacuation of the Louvre in World War II. Just ahead of the Germans, museum staff loaded up most of the priceless collection, including the Mona Lisa, and fled into the countryside to seek a place for safekeeping. “I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided it would be fun to combine Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa, Medici politics, and World War II!” Morelli laughs. “My first draft was waaaay too long and it was challenging to wrangle it down to a manageable size. Still, I loved following in the footsteps of my Renaissance and 20th-century characters. In particular, the evacuation of the Louvre collection is truly one of the most incredible true adventures of World War II.”

Through teaching and writing, Morelli is keen to share the excitement of art history with a broad audience. Her hope for The Stolen Lady is that readers come away seeing the Mona Lisa in a way they’ve never seen it before. “Over the past generation, millions of words have been written about Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. It’s truly staggering! I find it extraordinary that scholarship around Leonardo is very much a living and breathing thing, even some 500 years after the artist’s death. Because of this intense focus on Leonardo, I am certain there will be more important discoveries to come.”

Meanwhile, with this novel, Morelli worked to fill some of the gaps in the historical record, as well as answer some questions she’s been thinking about since that diary entry in Paris many years ago. A surprise personal benefit was that writing this book helped her during the pandemic lockdowns. “In a year when no one could leave home, traveling vicariously with Anne, Bellina, and Leonardo da Vinci truly kept me sane,” she says. “In my imagination, I whisked myself away to the Ponte Vecchio, over the Alps to the Louvre, to the breathtaking châteaux of the Loire Valley, and to the hulking medieval abbeys of southern France. What an incredible imaginary journey during the strangest of times.”

 

About the contributor: Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith’s passion for history and storytelling has driven her writing career. She is the author of two acclaimed non-fiction history books: Strength Within: the Granger Chronicles (Baico, 2005) and Muskoka’s Main Street: 150 Years of Courage and Adventure Along the Muskoka Colonization Road (Muskoka Books, 2012). She’s written articles for many magazines and newspapers, primarily about how to write family history and memoir. She is currently working on her fourth collection of photographs and poetry, inspired by the beauty she finds in her everyday world. Find out more at her website.


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