In 2013 Pushkin Press had a hit with Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s thriller I Was Jack Mortimer, recently reprinted in their new Vertigo series. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they have released another of Lernet-Holenia’s stories from the 1930s, Mona Lisa, also translated by Ignat Avesy. Those familiar with I Was Jack Mortimer, however, will find Mona Lisa a quite different work: gone is the mid-twentieth century, middle-Europe setting, so associated with noir that it’s easy to believe life was lived in black and white; instead we are in the much sunnier streets of Renaissance Florence where Leonardo da Vinci is still adding the occasional brush stroke to his masterpiece.
The story begins when the King of France sends Louis la Tremoille to Italy – France had interests in both Milan and Naples at the time. Though the King offers to finance the expedition he also makes it clear that la Tremoille should “take every opportunity of recouping the cost of the campaign.” Little of worth is found to send back to Paris so la Tremoille opts to rest in Florence with his nobles while his army goes on before, hoping to acquire some Italian art. This inevitably leads him to visit the home of Leonardo da Vinci who, unfortunately, has rather lost interest in art at that moment, preoccupied instead with siege engines, submarines, and “the weight of God.” The conversation between la Tremoille and da Vinci illustrates the light-hearted tone of the novella, particularly a disagreement over the number of legs a fly possesses, but Lernet-Holenia also introduces his more serious topic:
“I’ve resolved to depict the essence of love in verses and, in order to probe onto the anatomical origins of the same, I too have had arms and legs lying around in my workshop – in short I dissected the bodies of two women. The only thing is, I failed to discover anything of note.”
It is on this visit that we first glimpse Mona Lisa, revealed when Bougainville, the youngest of la Tremoille’s entourage, is engaged in attempting to catch a fly in order to settle the above mentioned dispute:
“A fantastic effulgence greeted his eyes. At the first instant he believed it to be flame, or the radiance of jewels. Only the luminance came from the perfectly flat surface of a picture, propped up at an angle on a chair…”
Bougainville falls instantly in love – “Not with the painting…With the lady” – only to discover that she died a number of years ago, news he finds difficult to accept: “Looking at the painting, he could not imagine she was dead.” He becomes further convinced she still lives when he visits her tomb:
“It seemed impossible that a full-grown woman could have been buried there, for otherwise the wall would have to be more than an arm-length thicker.”
Faced with the choice – accept what everyone is telling him, that Mona Lisa is deceased, or pry open her tomb just to be sure – he does what any self-respecting fictional character would and returns with a crow-bar and some friends. Bougainville’s efforts to prove Mona Lisa lives (and to locate her) are also (unsurprisingly) detrimental to French-Italian relations in the city as his passion makes him headstrong, to say the least, when questioning her husband.
Mona Lisa is a short (less than 100 pages) suspenseful entertainment, a tribute to both the power of art and love. As Bougainville says near the end:
“Love does not need any comforting. It does not even need requiting. All it needs is itself.”
Therein lies its beauty, and its danger.