The Smile by Donna Jo Napoli.
Dutton Children's Books/Penguin Group: NY, 2008.

Napoli packs this novel with historical details and speculation. The story is a fictional answer to the controversy surrounding the painting of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, a controversy spurred by the fact that Leonardo did not name the painting. The primary belief is that Napoli's character, Elisabetta di Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giacondo, is the subject of the painting (but certainly not the only belief). Historical references are not even clear which portrait is the Mona Lisa. Napoli's story takes place primarily before her marriage. It is an explanation for the worldly look on her face in the famous painting.

The author combines the idea of Lisa Gherardini with the idea that the portrait was commissioned by Giuliano de' Medici instead of Francesco to create a relationship between Mona Lisa and Giuliano and describe the political climate of the time. Giuliano's brother Piero rules Florence through the family's banking influence. He is a wastrel and nearly destroys the family and country. The next oldest brother Giovanni is a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church (and future Pope Leo X) and tries to moderate Piero's behavior when Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatical Dominican priest, undermines the Medicis influence through preaching in the plazas (on the streets). Savonarola manages to force exile on Piero and Giovanni, and he gains despotic power of Florence for himself for a few years. Giuliano is young but considered to be good. He feels he must stand by his brothers and so chooses exile, too. Though in the time beyond the scope of the book, he returns and becomes the leader of Florence for a few years.

Back to Elisabetta, she is becoming a woman, of marriageable age, but her life is disrupted by family problems and the political upheaval. She is of noble birth, though her family owns a silk and olive producing farm outside of Florence, and she assists with the running of the establishment. Through visits to the nobility in Florence, she befriends Giuliano and Leonardo. This story deals with her possible life and dreams and how she is affected by the times. Her ultimate decision to marry Francesco when her heart (at least in the story) is so totally tied to Giuliano.

The basic story is strong. There is the sense that the characters could be any noblewomen and men of the Italian Renaissance. The historical tidbits add that much more spice. The issues are common through history. In fact, I was struck by how similar some of the concepts are today - lavish entertaining and waste while the average citizen struggles, a country near destruction due to the banks being controlled by a few arrogant people, a charlatan in religious clothing trumpeting decadence and destruction to the public in order to wrest control of the country for himself.

related-Italian Renaissance, late 1400s to early 1500s, 16th century history, Mona Lisa, La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci, Medici family of Florence (Piero, Giovanni, Giuliano), coming of age, marriage, nobility, love and relationships, historical fiction

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