Jeanne Kalogridis

I, Mona Lisa Excerpt


My name is Lisa di Antonio Gherardini Giocondo, though to acquaintances I am known simply as Madonna Lisa, and to those of the common class, Monna Lisa.

My likeness has been recorded on wood, with boiled linseed oil and pigments dug from earth or crushed from semi-precious stones and applied with brushes made from the feathers of birds and the silken fur of animals.

I have seen the painting. It does not look like me. I stare at it and see instead the faces of my mother and father. I listen and hear their voices. I feel their love and their sorrow, and I witness, again and again, the crime that bound them together; the crime that bound them to me.

For my story begins not with my birth but a murder, committed the year before I was born.

It was first revealed to me during an encounter with the astrologer two weeks before my birthday, which was celebrated on the fifteenth of June. My mother announced that I would have my choice of a present. She assumed that I would request a new gown, for nowhere has sartorial ostentation been practiced more avidly than my native Florence. My father was one of the city’s wealthiest wool merchants, and his business connections afforded me my pick of sumptuous silks, brocades, velvets and furs.

But I did not want a gown. I had recently attended the wedding of my uncle Lauro and his young bride, Giovanna Maria. During the celebration afterward, my grandmother had remarked sourly:
“It cannot last happily. She is a Sagittarius, with Taurus ascendant. Lauro is Aries, the Ram. They will constantly be butting heads.”

“Mother,” my own had reproached gently.

“If you and Antonio had paid attention to such matters—” My grandmother had broken off at my mother’s sharp glance.

I was intrigued. My parents loved each other, but had never been happy. And I realized that they had never discussed my stars with me.

When I questioned my mother, I discovered that my chart had never been cast. This shocked me: Well-to-do Florentine families often consulted astrologers on important matters, and charts were routinely drawn up for newborns. And I was a rare creature: an only child, the bearer of my family’s hopes.

And as an only child, I was well aware of the power I possessed; I whined and pleaded pitifully until my reluctant mother yielded.

Had I known then what was to follow, I would not have pressed so hard.

Because it was not safe for my mother to venture out, we did not go to the astrologer’s residence, but instead summoned him to our palazzo.

From a window in the corridor near my bedroom, I watched as the astrologer’s gilded carriage, its door painted with his familial crest, arrived in the courtyard behind our house. Two elegantly-appointed servants attended him as he stepped down, clad in a farsetto, the close-fitting man’s garment which some wore in place of a tunic. The fabric was a violet velvet quilt, covered by a sleeveless brocade cloak in a darker shade of the same hue. His body was thin and sunken-chested, his posture and movements imperious.

Zalumma, my mother’s slave, moved forward to meet him. Zalumma was a well-dressed lady-in-waiting that day. She was devoted to my mother, whose gentleness inspired loyalty, and who treated her slave like a beloved companion. Zalumma was a Circassian, from the high mountains in the mysterious East; her people were prized for their beauty and Zalumma – tall as a man, with black hair and eyebrows and a face whiter than marble – was no exception. Her tight ringlets were formed not by a hot poker but by God, and were the envy of every Florentine woman. At times, she muttered to herself in her native tongue, which sounded like no language I had ever heard; she called it Adyghabza.

Zalumma curtsied, then led the man into the house to meet my mother. She had been nervous that morning, no doubt because the astrologer was the most prestigious in town and had, when the Pope’s forecaster had taken ill, even been consulted by His Holiness. I was to remain out of view; this first encounter was a business matter, and I would be a distraction.

I left my room and stepped lightly to the top of the stairs to see if I could make out what was going on two floors below me. The stone walls were thick, and my mother had shut the door to the reception chamber. I could not even make out muffled voices.

The meeting did not last long. My mother opened the door and called for Zalumma; I heard her quick steps on the marble, then a man’s voice.

I retreated from the stairs and hurried back to window, with its view of the astrologer’s carriage.

Zalumma escorted him from the house – then, after glancing about, handed him a small object, perhaps a purse. He refused it at first, but Zalumma addressed him earnestly, urgently. After a moment of indecision, he pocketed the object, then climbed into his carriage and was driven away.

I assumed that she had paid him for a reading, though I was surprised that a man with such stature would read for a slave. Or perhaps my mother had simply forgotten to pay him.

As she walked back towards the house, Zalumma happened to glance up and meet my gaze. Flustered at being caught spying, I withdrew.

I expected Zalumma, who enjoyed teasing me about my misdeeds, to mention it later; but she remained altogether silent on the matter.

II

Three days later, the astrologer returned. Once again, I watched from the top floor window as he climbed from the carriage and Zalumma greeted him. I was excited; Mother had agreed to call for me when the time was right. I decided that she wanted time to polish any negative news and give it a rosier glow.

This time the horoscopist wore his wealth in the form of a brilliant yellow tunic of silk damask trimmed with brown marten fur. Before entering the house, he paused and spoke to Zalumma furtively; she put a hand to her mouth as if shocked by what he said. He asked her a question. She shook her head, then put a hand on his forearm, apparently demanding something from him. He handed her a scroll of papers, then pulled away, irritated, and strode into our palazzo. Agitated, she tucked the scroll into a pocket hidden in the folds of her skirt, then followed on his heels.

I left the window and stood listening at the top of the stairs, mystified by the encounter and impatient for my summons.

Less than a quarter hour later, I started violently when downstairs, a door was flung open with such force it slammed against the wall. I ran to the window: the astrologer was walking, unescorted, back to his carriage.

I lifted my skirts and dashed down the stairs full tilt, grateful that I encountered neither Zalumma nor my mother. Breathless, I arrived at the carriage just as the astrologer gave his driver the signal to leave.

I put my hand on the polished wooden door and looked up at the man sitting on the other side. “Please stop,” I said.

He gestured for the driver to hold the horses back and scowled sourly down at me; yet his gaze also held a curious compassion. “You would be the daughter, then.”

“Yes.”

He appraised me carefully. “I will not be party to deception. Do you understand?”

“No.”

“Hmm. I see that you do not.” He paused to choose his words carefully. “Your mother, Madonna Lucrezia, said that you were the one who requested my services. Is that so?”

“It is.” I flushed, not knowing whether my admission would anger him further.

“Then you deserve to hear at least some of the truth – for you will never hear the full of it in this house.”

His pompous irritation faded and his tone grew earnest and dark. “Your chart is unusual – some would say it is distressing. I take my art very seriously, and employ my intuition well, and both tell me that you are caught in a cycle of violence, of blood and deceit. What others have begun, you must finish.”

I recoiled. When I could find my voice, I insisted, “I want nothing to do with such things.”

“You are fire four times over,” he said. “Your temper is hot, a furnace in which the sword of justice must be forged. In your stars I saw an act of violence, one which is your past and your future.”

“But I would never do anything to hurt someone else!”

“God has ordained it. He has His reasons for your destiny.”

I wanted to ask more, but the astrologer called to his driver, and a pair of fine black horses pulled them away.

Perplexed and troubled, I walked back toward the house. By chance, I happened to lift my gaze, and saw

Zalumma, staring down at me from the top floor window.

By the time I returned to my chamber, she was gone. There I waited for half an hour until my mother called for me.

She still sat in the grand hall where she had received the astrologer. She smiled when I entered, apparently unaware of my encounter with the astrologer. In her hand she bore a sheaf of papers.

“Come, sit beside me,” she said brightly. “I shall tell you all about your stars. They should have been charted long ago, so I have decided that you still deserve a new gown. Your father will take you today into the city to choose the cloth; but you must say nothing to him about this. Otherwise, he will judge us as too extravagant.”

I sat stiffly, my back straight, my hands folded tightly in my lap.

“See here.” My mother set the papers in her lap and rested her fingertip on the astrologer’s elegant script.

“You are Gemini, of course – air. And Pisces rising, which is water. Your moon is in Aries – fire. And you have many aspects of earth in your chart, which makes you exceedingly well-balanced. This indicates a most fortunate future.”

As she spoke, my anger grew. She had spent the past half-hour composing herself and concocting a happy falsehood. The astrologer had been right; I could not expect to find the truth here.

“You will have a long, good life, wealth, and many children,” my mother continued. “You need not worry about which man you marry, for you are so well-aspected toward every sign that -- ”

I cut her off. “No,” I said. “I am fire four times over. My life will be marked by treachery and blood.”

My mother rose swiftly; the papers in her lap slipped to the floor and scattered. “Zalumma!” she hissed, her eyes lit by a fury I had never seen in her before. “Did she speak to you?”

“I spoke to the astrologer myself.”

This quieted her at once, and her expression grew unreadable. Carefully, she asked, “What else did he tell you?”

“Only what I just said.”

“No more?”

“No more.”

Abruptly drained, she sank back into her chair.

Lost in my own anger, I did not stop to think that my kind and doting mother wished only to shield me from evil news. I jumped to my feet. “All that you have said is a lie. What others have you told me?”

It was a cruel thing to say. She glanced at me, stricken. Yet I turned and left her sitting there, with her hand pressed to her heart.

I soon surmised that my mother and Zalumma had had a terrible argument. They had always been on the most amiable terms, but after the astrologer’s second visit, my mother grew cold each time Zalumma entered the room. She would not meet her slave’s gaze, nor would she speak more than a few words to her. Zalumma, in turn, was sullen and silent. Several weeks passed before they were friends once again.

My mother never spoke to me again of my stars. I often thought of asking Zalumma to find the papers the astrologer had given my mother, so that I could read for myself the truth of my fate. But each time, a sense of dread held me back.

I already knew more than I wished.

Almost two years would pass before I learned of the crime to which I was inextricably bound.