Francesco del Giocondo emerges in history as the husband of the lady portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci in the world’s most famous painting. The confusion and speculation about both the lady and the painting is ongoing. But as to the man who commissioned the painting in the first place, the man who made it all happen? He seems to have been largely, and often deliberately, overlooked by so many scholars and historians.
Giorgio Vasari, in his great collection of biographies (the ‘Vite’), specifically introduces del Giocondo as the man for whom Leonardo undertook to paint the portrait. Vasari is unequivocal in connecting together the three main protagonists: Francesco, his wife Lisa, and Leonardo. These circumstances, and the fact that the painting was left unfinished, were detailed in Vasari’s First Edition, in 1550, and left unchanged in the revised Second Edition of 1568. (This episode was independently witnessed and confirmed by Agostino Vespucci during the painting’s execution in 1503).
To properly understand the real history of the ‘Mona Lisa’, it is important to recognize the relevance of del Giocondo and his place in society. In 1475, the Florentine Government affirmed an unwritten law that “Every Florentine-born adult is free to gain his living as he wills.” The caveat to this perceived benevolence was that any merchant, trader, craftsman, or anyone pursuing a profession in order to legally earn a living had to belong to a specific guild. During the 14th Century it seemed that there was a separate guild, or trade association for every conceivable activity: ‘vaginariai’ – scabbard-makers; ‘conciatelli’ – house- tilers; ‘cereriai’ – wax-moulders; ‘rivenditori’ – used- clothes dealers. To complicate matters further, some guilds had higher ranking than others, for no apparent reason. By the 15th Century however, arrangements became more streamlined. There were seven Greater Guilds – ‘Le Arti Maggiori’, which incidentally included the Wool-manufacturers, and the Silk- manufacturers.Following these were fourteen Lesser Guilds, ‘Le Arti Minori’; and the numerous other trade-associations managed to gain some recognition by subordinating themselves to larger groups.
Francesco del Giocondo, born in 1465, was only 24 years old when he was elected in 1489 as a Consul of the Silk Guild – ‘L’Arte della Seta’ – and it is clear that his ambition and business acumen were recognized at an early age. Earlier, in 1472, Benedetto Dei, a chronicler and business agent for the Medici family, reported that there were eighty-three major silk workshops in Florence. The Silk Guild, also known as the ‘Arte di Por San Maria’, was one of the city’s most powerful guilds: it oversaw production and ensured that all silk cloth manufactured in the city adhered to strict measurement and quality standards. Many types of silk cloth and velvets were produced in Florence, but the most famous were the ‘auroserici’, silk fabrics enhanced with gold thread, which dominated the world textile market during the Renaissance. Del Giocondo and his brothers owned two shops, and rented an additional one in the Por Santa Maria area, that since the 14th Century has been linked to the silk trade.
Other Tuscan cities such as Siena and Lucca also had thriving silk industries, and the rivalry with Florence was intense. In the 16th Century, Lucca and Florence together dominated the international silk market at Lyon. The del Giocondo family were involved in all aspects of silk production, from the cultivation of mulberry trees, through all the artisanal processes such as unwinding, twisting, cooking and dying the raw fiber; then on to the spooling and weaving; finally to the merchandising of the goods, both through retailing in Florence and exporting internationally to markets in France, Flanders, England, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, to Constantinople and Alexandria. Florentine silk had an exceptional reputation, and the merchants involved in that trade were making fortunes.
Of interest to silk production at the highest level is the significance of the Palio Banner in the Renaissance. These banners had not just enormous social importance: they were often the most important objects commissioned by city governments. As pieces of art, their values often superseded the cost of great paintings and sculpture. For example, the money spent on a banner’s production, as early as 1380, was equivalent to two thousand times the average daily wage of a labourer. Three hundred florins was an average cost: to put this in perspective, the wealthy Strozzi family in 1354 paid the painter Andrea Orcagna a mere two hundred florins for a polyptych for their chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella.
The del Giocondo family also operated a parallel business in the wool trade. Though the products had obvious differences, the logistics involved had many similarities. As with silk, Florence was, at the end of the 15th Century, one of the world’s greatest producers of finished woven wool cloth. It is noted in some export records that “…fourteen thousand pieces of cloth, made out of Spanish wool called ‘Garbo’, were woven in one year, and sold abroad for twenty-one gold florins the piece. In the same year five thousand pieces of cloth, made out of fine English wool called ‘San Martino’, were woven, and realized sixty gold florins the piece.” To support their activities in this trade, the del Giocondos had additional workshops in the city, including one at Via Sant’Antonino, barely a 5-minute walk from his residence on Via della Stufa, and close to where the main railway station is today. Del Giocondo, through his activities in the silk and wool trades, was in the vanguard of the Florentine economic powerhouse.
The overt success of people in the silk and wool trades frequently caught the attention of others, often wealthy families who were not in these occupations at all, but who saw economic opportunities. The Rucellai family was one example, and the Strozzi family was another. Marcello Strozzi was reputed to have been an investor in the Giocondo silk business. Marcello was also a brother to Maddalena Strozzi, who married Agnolo Doni. Raphael painted two portraits of Maddalena: the first – ‘Lady with a Unicorn’ is derived almost exclusively from Leonardo’s original portrait of ‘Mona Lisa’, Francesco’s wife; and the second – ‘Portrait of Maddalena Doni’, one of a pair commissioned to commemorate her marriage, is similarly influenced by Leonardo’s portrait of Francesco’s wife.
The decline of the wool industry in Florence started in the 1560s, many years after the death of Francesco del Giocondo, when Duke Cosimo II instituted the ‘Military Order of the Knights of St. Stephen’. Many wealthy merchants and manufacturers, wishing to secure in perpetuity for their families the honour and distinction of the military cross, with its accompanying privileges, founded commanderies; fearing to demean themselves they disdained to continue the exercise of their trade. Within a few years, the great spirit of enterprise had departed from the industry. Still, one could almost hear the patriotic refrain of those earlier golden years:
“Firenze – ricca per industria ! Firenze – Regina dell’ Arti ! Firenze la Bella ! Evviva ! Firenze la Bella ! – la Bella !”
Apart from the major banking dynasties like the Medici, many wealthy families also frequently ended up in the banking business, or at least some forms of it. In addition, with the rise of the mercantile class in Florence, international trade flourished. Import and export goods, and shipping, had to be paid for: financial contracts had to be met. While records that identify Francesco del Giocondo as a great patron of the arts may be scant, he found other ways to be interested in the artistic community. Successful merchants often had private money to lend, and many people, including artists, needed money as much to survive as anything else. When the small-time artist Maestro Valerio died in 1521 owing money to Francesco del Giocondo, the debt was settled by Francesco claiming Valerio’s complete inventory of paintings, drawings and sculptures.
Francesco del Giocondo’s coup in securing the services of the great Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of his wife was actually an extraordinary achievement, considering the elevated milieu in which Leonardo usually functioned. He later commissioned an altarpiece from the well-known Florentine painter, Domenico Puligo, for the family chapel at Santissima Annunziata. (Puligo was a ‘collaborator’ of Andrea del Sarto, from whom the Servites there commissioned a series of frescos). Apparently Francesco liked the result of Puligo’s work so much, he took it home. In addition, there is mention by Vasari of a fresco (with a ‘storia de Martiri’) by Antonio di Donnino (or Domino) Mazzieri that was commissioned for Francesco’s family chapel. That del Giocondo could afford to move his family tomb to the SS Annunziata, and have it placed among others in the semi-circle behind the main altar of one of the most prestigious chapels there, was a sign of his prosperity and importance at the time: self- described as ‘civis et mercator florentinus’ – a citizen and merchant of Florence.
Francesco del Giocondo, in addition to his prominence as a businessman and merchant, played an important part in Florentine politics. In 1499, he was elected as one the ‘Buonomini’, one of two elected Councils required to be consulted by the Signoria. Quietly, del Giocondo was a supporter of the Medici, and he kept a low profile during the regime of Piero Soderini. In fact, in the dying days of the Republic, the Soderini government arrested Francesco, and imprisoned him during the last week of August, 1512 (ref. Tommasini’s ‘La vita di Machiavelli’, 1883). With the collapse of the government the next day, Soderini fled into exile in Rome, Francesco was released, and the Medici were back in power.
Leonardo’s friend and supporter, Niccolò Machiavelli, was not so fortunate. For years he had been Soderini’s Second Chancellor, and a long- time representative of the Florentine government. The Medici dismissed him in November 1512 from his posts, and by February 1513 he was implicated in an anti-Medici plot organized by Pietro Paolo Boscoli and Agostino Capponi. The latter two were executed, and Machiavelli narrowly escaped the same fate. However, he was imprisoned and tortured in the Bargello, and then exiled to his small estate at Sant’Andrea, in Percussina. While there, he wrote his famous ‘Dei principati’, which he intended to dedicate to Giuliano de’ Medici. He hoped that this, combined with the fact that his friend Leonardo had entered Giuliano’s service, would revive his fortunes. Sadly Niccolò remained excluded from the graces of the Medici.
Later that year, Francesco was nominated by the ‘Authority of 1512’ to the powerful committee of ‘55’, the parliament hand-picked by Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, soon to be Pope Leo X, and his brother Giuliano. In March–April of 1513, he was one of the eight ‘Priori’ of the ‘Signoria’. One wonders if his contribution of five hundred gold florins to the Medici cause was a factor in that appointment!
Francesco was not the only one in the family interested in politics. From the mid-1400s until the early 1500s almost eighty members of the Giocondo family were elected into various bodies of the Republic, or as Priors of its executive body, the ‘Signoria’, or as members of the consultative body, the ‘Dodici Buonomini’. The family was particularly active in Florence’s political life between the years 1480 to 1520, with more than forty representatives to various government bodies. Generally, the family maintained a good balance of relations with both the Medici and their rivals. There is no doubt that Francesco del Giocondo had achieved not just great wealth, but significant influence and status in Florence.
There is coincidence in all of this: the apparent connections between Francesco del Giocondo and Giuliano de’ Medici, the two men in history associated with the two commissions of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’.
WIVES & CONNECTIONS
Just as there is no shortage of coincidences marking the destiny of Leonardo’s life, so also there is a remarkable list of coincidences that influenced Francesco del Giocondo. As an accomplished businessman with political acumen even at a relatively young age, he came to the attention of the immensely wealthy Rucellai family. Niccolò Machiavelli dedicated both his ‘Art of War’ and ‘Discourses on Titus Livy’ to the family patriarch Cosimo Rucellai. Lisa Gherardini’s late step-mother, the second wife of her father Antonmaria Gherardini, was Caterina, daughter of Mariotto Ruccelai. (Caterina died in childbirth, in 1474 or 1475). Another daughter of Mariotto Ruccelai, though perhaps not from the same mother because of the age differences between the sisters, was Camilla, who became the first wife of Francesco del Giocondo in 1491. Being accepted into the Rucellai family marked a great achievement in social status for Francesco. The couple had a son, Bartolomeo, in February 1493. Sadly Camilla died in July 1494, and was buried in the Rucellai family vault in Santa Maria Novella. In March 1495, Francesco married Lisa Gherardini.
There are numerous conflicting records concerning the number of times Francesco was married. Many history books refer to a certain Tommasa di Mariotto Villani as his second wife; literally squeezed in somewhere between the death of Camilla and the marriage to Lisa. However, Kenneth Clark refers to Lisa as “ … the second wife … ”, and Giuseppe Pallanti*, who has committed years of research to the subject, is adamant that there are no valid records to support a marriage between Francesco and Tommasa; no references to a dowry as there were for both Camilla and Lisa; and no mention of Mariotto Villani.
It may be possible that some confusion is due to different calendars being used for the dating: the Florentine calendar often showing an apparent one- year discrepancy with modern calculations.
Francesco also had a relative, Giannetto Giocondo, operating a branch of the family business in Lisbon. In turn, Giannetto had business dealings with Amerigo Vespucci, a relative of Agostino Vespucci, who was Machiavelli’s assistant. The Machiavelli and Gherardini families both came from the same parish: Santa Trinita. So between inter-marriages, family, business and political connections, it is not surprising that a lasting union between the Gherardini and del Giocondo families was arranged.
Frank Zöllner points out that Francesco does not seem to have made significant political or economic gains from this marriage, and in fact Lisa’s dowry was quite modest by the standards of the day. For his beautiful 15 year-old daughter, Lisa, Antonmaria gave what he could: a small farm near San Silvestro, and 170 gold florins. By comparison, when she married Agnolo Doni in 1504, Maddalena Strozzi had a dowry of 1400 florins. Still, Francesco succeeded: by 1537, his granddaughter Cassandra had a dowry of 1440 florins. Zöllner continues:
“We might even conclude that he married Lisa for genuine affection and that this affection also had some bearing on his decision to have Leonardo portray his wife.”
Francesco died in 1538, and was interred at the Santissima Annunziata. Lisa survived him by four years. As a widow she lived in the care of her son Piero, and eventually her daughter, Suor Ludovica, and was buried at the convent of Sant’Orsolo.
A fitting epitaph for their relationship is an extract from Francesco’s own will:
“ … Item propter amorem et dilectionem dicti testatoris erga didtam dominam Lisam eius dilectam uxorem et attento qualiter se gessit prefata domina Lisa erga dictum testatorem ingénue et tanquam mulier ingenua …”
“… Given the love and affection of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife, in consideration of the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife … ”
CHILDREN OF FRANCESCO AND LISA
After her marriage, Lisa adopted the young Bartolomeo, Francesco’s son by his first wife, the late Camilla, as her own. Bartolomeo eventually took over the reins of Francesco’s business, and died in 1561.
Lisa gave birth to her own son, Piero, in 1496. He also participated successfully in the business, and lived until 1569. In May, a daughter, Piera, was born, but she lived only 2 years. In August 1499, shortly after the death of Piera, another daughter was born. She was named Camilla, perhaps after her mother’s second name, or more likely in fond memory of Francesco’s first wife. Camilla took religious vows and became a nun at only 12 years of age. Subsequently known as Suor Beatrice, she died in 1518, at the age of only 19.
A third daughter, Marietta, was born in 1500. She also eventually became a nun, in the Sant’Orsolo convent, in 1521, and assumed the name of Suor Ludovica. She outlived her parents and all her siblings, dying in 1579. A son, Andrea, was born in 1502: he is documented only until 1524. Lisa’s last child, a son Giocondo, was born in 1507, and died a year later. He was buried at Santa Maria Novella.
The Gherardini were an ancient family of landowners whose ancestry can be traced back to the 10th Century. At one time, some of these ancestors had been lords of Val di Greve and Val d’Elsa in the Chianti region of Tuscany. While the family had owned lands in Tuscany, they were neither aristocracy nor nobility. It was not uncommon in the 15th Century for owners of small agricultural land holdings to rent accommodation in larger towns, or in cities like Florence. In turn, renting out their farms provided a modest income, but with the constant economic and political uncertainty, and frequent wars, land ownership itself was not a guarantee of wealth. By 1479, the family was in reduced circumstances, and on June 15th Lisa Camilla Gherardini was born in a modest rented house at the corner of Via Sguazza and Via Maggio.
A large Gherardini farm near Vignamaggio had been sold off in 1422. Later, in 1478-1479, the invasion of Chianti by the Aragonese army brought great hardship. Spanish soldiers laid waste vast tracts of the countryside, causing death, destruction and misery. Noldo Gherardini, Lisa’s grandfather, had requested some tax relief in the 1480 ‘Catasto’, as “…because of the war, our houses have been burned, our possessions smashed and our workers and livestock lost.”
Lisa was the child of Antonmaria di Noldo Gherardini, and his third wife Lucrezia del Caccia, who he married in 1476. Antonmaria had married his first wife, Lisa Carducci, after whom Lisa was named, in 1465; and then in 1473 he married Caterina Rucellai. Both wives died in childbirth. The del Caccia family was of a similar background to the Gherardini, owning farms and land in Chianti. In 1524 they too had to sell off a beautiful farm property, near Greve.
Francesco del Giocondo was a successful self-made man. He was prominent in the most important industries during the ‘Golden Age’ of Florentine affluence and mercantile domination. He was active in politics, and had powerful allies in both the Republican and Medici administrations, in addition to a network of agents and contacts throughout Europe. He created a solid business dynasty, and patronised the arts. When one fully comprehends the background history, the social and economic conditions, and the interwoven web of relationships between the personalities, it would be logical that Francesco del Giocondo would have secured Leonardo’s services to paint his wife.