Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Second Mrs. Gioconda

The Second Mrs. Gioconda

E.L. Konigsburg
For ages 12 and up
Simon and Schuster, 2005   ISBN: 1416903429

It is a hot day in July in Milan and a young boy called Salai is walking towards the castle. Salai is sure that eating some anise comfits will make him feel cooler but he has no money to buy the sweets. Salai is not troubled by his lack of funds because he is sure that he can acquire some, which is just what he does. A little cut with his knife to release a wallet and he has the money he needs, but he does not have it for long. The man walking with Salai’s mark sees what Salai does and catches him.  The mark tells Salai that he has been caught by “one of God’s finest inventions,” the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Salai has never heard of Leonardo, and even if he had the boy would probably not behave differently anyway. Little impresses Salai, who has spent his entire life finding ways to survive in a harsh world.

   Though Salai is not impressed by Leonardo, Leonardo is very taken with Salai. He offers the boy an apprenticeship and soon Salai is helping his new master in his studio. Salai also goes with Leonardo when the artist goes to the castle to discuss projects with his most important patron, Duke Ludovico Sforza, whom most people called Il Moro.

   Leonardo, who is neither an aristocrat nor a university educated man, often feels ill at ease when he is in the company of learned men. After they have been in the company of university men, Salai sees his master’s discomfort and he finds ways to cheer him up, reminding Leonardo that “to be very learned in books means only to have an opinion on other people’s opinions.” The boy finds clever ways to make fun of the learned men so that his master laughs and is at ease again. Thus Salai starts to learn that life is about more than self-preservation. It is also about reaching out to others.

   Salai comes to appreciate this even more when he meets Il Moro’s bride-to-be, the Duchesse Beatrice. Il Moro had wanted to marry Beatrice’s sister Isabella, who is beautiful and everything a man could want in a wife. Unfortunately, Il Moro missed the opportunity to ask for Isabella’s hand and she married someone else, so Il Moro decides to marry Beatrice. Beatrice is very plain and has always been considered the second best daughter in her family, and now she is Il Moro’s second choice. Salai and Leonardo quickly realize that Beatrice has so much to offer and they set about doing everything they can to help her show her future husband that she is a special and loveable person.

   Through their friendship, Salai and Leonardo help Beatrice to gain confidence, and in so doing they help her to open up and be herself. When people see that the great Leonardo da Vinci is visiting Beatrice, they decide that they too must visit her. It is not long before Beatrice has charmed everyone in court with her good humor, intelligence, good sense, and kindness. She even manages to catch the eye of her husband, who falls in love with her.

   Though Beatrice gets everything she dreamed of - a husband’s love and then a baby to cherish - she always refuses to have her portrait painted. Leonardo cannot get her to agree to sit for him, and he cannot get rid of Beatrice’s sister Isabella, who is itching to have the great artist create a portrait of her. Not even Salai, who is so dear to Beatrice, can convince her to let Leonardo to draw her. Beatrice thinks her looks are not worthy of Leonardo’s artistic ability.

   Millions of people have seen and admired the Mona Lisa. What is strange about the painting is that the woman portrayed is not particularly pretty or beautiful. One might even say that she is plain, and yet she has a compelling face, one that attracts the eye and makes one wonder. In this remarkable book E. L Konigsburg tells a story to explain why Leonardo da Vinci chose to paint the portrait of a very ordinary looking woman who has wise eyes and the hint of a smile on her lips. The story draws on the little that we know about Leonardo, Salai, and the Mona Lisa, beautifully weaving fact and fiction together to give us a tale that is captivating and thought-provoking.

   Teenagers and adults alike will find this book engaging and entertaining.