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Behind Mona Lisa’s Smile

The enigmatic smile on the face of Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, has been the subject of endless speculation. A new novel, The Stolen Lady (William Morrow, $16.99), tries to get behind the smile to reveal the woman behind the iconic image.  Along with probing the character of this young Florentine wife and mother, the novel also follows the perilous journey of the painting during World War II, when the Nazis, eager to get their hands on the Louvre’s art collection, attempt to claim it as their own.

Author Laura Morelli talks to Lilith’s fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she wove these strands into a tale that sets the individual, human stories against the broader historical panorama. 

YZM: How does your training and work as an art historian shape your novels? 

LM: Art history is really about stories and people. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Those stranger-than-fiction stories make the best nonfiction. Other times, stories, or pieces of stories, are lost to history. And for me, that’s where imagination takes over, and fiction begins.

Today, everything I write revolves around art history. For me, the history of art is an endless font of inspiration. When I began to see the opportunity to marry fact and fiction, I knew I had found my niche.

I think historical fiction readers come to the genre to immerse themselves in the past. They don’t want an information dump. They don’t want to read a textbook. They want to feel what it was like to live in a certain era and place. They want to smell it, touch it, see it. Art objects become part of this sensory experience—and sometimes they become the heart of the story.

YZM: Given the atrocities committed against millions of people, why are these crimes against works of art important?  How does the fate of stolen works of art inform or change our understanding of the Holocaust? 

LM: This is such a great question! What is the value of a work of art when weighed against the value of a human life? Throughout the history of human conflict, I think many involved in the protection—and sometimes even the theft or destruction—of a work of art or a historical monument must have asked themselves this question.

During World War II, so many historical structures and works of art were stolen or demolished. And yet, individuals on all sides went to extraordinary efforts to protect works of art, and many put their own lives on the line to save works for us—for the future of humanity. That’s really amazing when you think about it! And yet, when you dig into the research, you realize it’s not black and white at all; there are so many gray areas.

As a historical novelist, these questions swirl in my head constantly as I am putting a book together. As I develop characters, I ask myself what I would do in a particular situation, and I hope readers do, too. 

It’s heartbreaking to realize that, after the war, many works of art and so many personal belongings had nowhere to go. Recent discoveries and restitutions of works of art in the news, I think, help put individual actions and decisions into focus within our broader understanding of the Holocaust. I expect we will continue to see incredible stories come to light as these works are discovered and as provenance research evolves. Every time one of these individual stories is told, it reminds us to remember the bigger context of all that was lost. 

YZM: Let’s talk about Anne and Bellina, two women separated by about 500 years.  Both play pivotal roles in history and both change and grow in the course of the novel; care to comment? 

Anne is the only one of the Louvre employees in The Stolen Lady who is a fictional character. The true story of the Louvre staff and their ever-shifting chess game of treasures is surely one of the most amazing adventures of World War II. 

In August 1939, Louvre curators carefully removed the Mona Lisa from the wall. They packed the 500-year-old painted panel into a specially designed, velvet-lined case and then nailed it shut inside a wooden crate. As the Nazis bore down on Paris, Louvre staff packed up and spirited away the Mona Lisa and some 3,600 other priceless works of art into the French countryside. It was the biggest museum evacuation in history.

Lilith reads: image by Rebecca Katz

Following in Anne’s footsteps allows readers to also follow in the footsteps of the Mona Lisa on this incredible adventure from Paris into privately owned castles and monasteries. 

Bellina is also a fictional character, which makes it possible for her to navigate everything from Lisa’s bedchamber to the visitor’s corridor at Santissima Annunziata monastery, to the powder keg of secret Florentine meeting spots during the rise of Girolamo Savonarola. 

Bellina is a well-meaning yet misguided character in Lisa Gherardini’s household. Through a series of circumstances, she is compelled to hide Leonardo’s new portrait of her mistress. Bellina helped shape my depiction of Renaissance Florence as a city ripped apart by the emotional allegiances that must have severed friends and families during this tumultuous chapter in Florentine history. As a novelist, I have long wanted to explore the mind of someone who threw a treasured possession onto the Bonfire of the Vanities in February 1497. Poor, tormented Bellina turned out to be the perfect victim.

YZM: You’ve talked about the effect of the pandemic on writing this novel; along with the disruptions and delays, was there anything surprising or even positive that you learned?

In a year when no one could leave home, traveling vicariously by writing The Stolen Lady truly kept me sane. In my imagination, I whisked myself away to Renaissance Florence, 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!

What’s in store for you next? 

I’m working on a story set partly in Florence in 1943-1944. The fate of artworks during World War II was different and more complex in Italy than elsewhere in Europe. I’m having fun with the story and can’t wait to get it into readers’ hands!