Always I Smile
Mona Lisa had eyelashes and eyebrows when I first joined her on the wall at Château de Fontainebleau. The portrait of a modern woman then, with as much grace as one could maintain while pinned to poplar. Her veil cascaded in sheer exquisiteness down her smooth, blonde hair. Oh yes, her hair was blonde then, when the painting still smelled of linseed and Florence. But decades had passed since he’d first finished the portrait, and the smallest details of that picture had begun to sink into its layers, much how the fairness of any lady fades over time. Leonardo gave light, shine, and Bella Donna, too. So many glazes and colors, like secrets, lost to antiquity. But I remember. I am cursed to remember.
I realize the modern convention is to call the portrait “The Mona Lisa,” but I know her in a different way; I know her because she is me. I lived my years in Chianti near Florence, but never returned to that coast in my old age. I intended to expire with the elegance of a season folding into the next— nothing more. Imagine my surprise when I passed the earthly world to arrive in Paris instead of purgatory. I had already adorned the walls at Fontainebleau for some time by then. What times these were! The nobles would stop and gawk; the ladies, in their cinched-up judgement, called me a harlot over their flapping éventails. Their proper mouths let slip a word, sometimes two. What times these were, indeed!
In life, my name was Lisa Del Giocondo, a wife and mother—five glorious babes that loved me with a fierce and tender verity. A sixth never had the chance; she died in birth. But I surrogated another sixth in Bartolomeo—what a lad! Camilla’s son, the dead wife of my Francesco. I took him as my own, brought him up the way I imagined Camilla might’ve. Dear Bart, his strength and fortitude a pure gift. All of them, gone, gone! Francesco, the husband who draped me in beautiful fabrics and wrapped me in rich textiles; how I wailed and wept upon his corpse. They dragged me away as I clutched to his cold flesh. After his death, my hair finally showed the early signs of age, heartache, at last, muting the golden waves, as that Florence brilliance faded from my tresses.
I know you are distracted by the blonde reference. You must take my word for it. I hear the word Auburn, sometimes glints of highlight, an effect of my privilege, leisure time in the sun—a detail not missed by the great artist who captured me. Trust me, my hair was blonde like the sand at Viareggio, not the Danish blonde of sailors. Mine was the color of sunshine, flaxen glints symbiotic with the tan of my brow and breast. A deep blonde with complexity and grain. True, there are other types of blonde: The hills of Spain, the crust of a right sourdough, fields of ripened wheat, and the soft shine of gilt bronze buttons that fasten up your young man’s coat just so. The dark beneath mitigating the light above.
Leonardo explained his method as he painted, how the dark mass he’d hung around my head was not some terrible halo of evil, but rather a platform from where he would draw forth the lightest light, dark to show the contrast of my folds and tresses, an undercurrent to the illusion he would produce. Then he showed me; he showed me how the fairest strokes would stand out to capture light on that poplar as if fixed there by the glory of the Almighty Himself. The technique belonged to Leonardo alone. Those who followed copied his style but none mastered it as he had, the gift of its creator. And in a sense, my creator—perhaps in the truest sense, now, as I linger in this state. The black pulls me in with a slow lure, but had I known how slow, I would have begged for him to paint me all black at once, prepare me for that eternal night of outer darkness and save me from this unhurried slip into damnation.
I should not complain. The places I have seen since that first arrival at Fontainebleau brought me splendid variations of light with such colors, such brilliance of line and hue, even as similar details faded from my portrait. How I sank into a depression when my background turned to outline and the shaded hills of Piacenza faded to limpidity. By then, we were off to Rome on tour, then back to Paris proper, with the colors of French la vie, and off still, to Tokyo and then to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow where I saw the faces of a million people gawking. Next, to the New World with its textures and visions. I traveled to Washington D.C., to New York City— the colors I beheld then, enough to distract me from my eternal fate. Shocking though the modern west appeared, my visage would not be moved. Then back to Europe, but never again to Florence. Stuck in a narrow state of witness, I’ve weathered the onlookers and oglers—refined and provincial mannerisms—all these centuries long. What if they knew I stared back at them?
It is no wonder the blonde is gone; no wonder the eyelashes have sunk into the mire; not a question that the blush which slipped the supple cheeks of youth now slips the waning notice of history. And yet, I remain.
Always, I smile at the clever man who shaped my brow and lent the light to my hair— light now gone. But he is gone, too.
What it is to be a ghost, the thing that remembers her past life as a zoetrope in reverse, yet not hers at all? Consider my alarm when I arrived at Fontainebleau, the portrait hung there for many years already. Had I died? Certainly now I wish I had. But instead, the sorcery Leonardo used— wicked magic I’ve heard onlookers call ‘dreamlike,’ the way some say he captured my spirit, that I live still in my smile and eyes, eyes that no longer have lashes—that magic fixed me to this world forevermore, from Fontainebleau to the Louvre, and even Napoleon’s bedroom at Tuileries (trust me that no proper Florentine should know such truths about a man).
I have been stolen; this is also true. I know the longing of Pablo when he marveled at another’s creation, saw the glint of saliva on the creases of his lips as he eyed me like a hungry beast. Was I the only trap that snagged his moral fabric, or did he find his way to the Louvre on more than one occasion? I bet there were others, paintings just like mine, taken to where he could touch their places of greatness, where others’ fingers once dabbed, where bristles swept. I know first-hand that Pablo longed to know how strokes blend to become the way of the masters. I saw the longing on his face, his smirk a lustful curve. And yet he chunked his shapes and muted his vibrancies after all the refinements were found to not be enough. But he never caught the magic that Leonardo birthed. And so, he gave me back. By then, the world knew my name, or hers. Actually, no one knows that I am here, ever watching and waiting for the world to melt into oblivion so that I might finally rest.
Yes, he did affix my spirit to this poplar. Yes, I am here. . . but have been here so long I doubt the ‘me’ I once knew. I find solace in the remembrance of Bart: a boy, not my own, whom I raised to be a man—also not mine. His memory is where I now find comfort, a lingering want that sooths as much as it shames me. Bart came to France once in those early days when I hung at Fontainebleau. The journey must have been great on him, for by then his tired eyes barely lit upon the site of me. Instead, Bartolomeo lowered his head and wept. I tried to reach out to him, to let him know that I saw him. I pounded at the nothing that held me. I screamed. But no sound erupted from that vacuum of my existence. What would I have said anyway? That I loved playing the surrogate mother to him and treasured his loyalty to me? That I felt a deeper longing for him I could never convey? No. Some things are best left to sink into the silence of pride. Would I have shared news of my trapped fate? Alas, why would I heap that heavy burden upon him? He could no sooner free me from the poplar than I could.
And since then, I have been alone; I have been made an icon. Since then, I have been vandalized and sensationalized and forgotten by no one. I live out this existence in stasis, wondering upon those who gaze at me with their own wonder. I judge their expressions in much the same way as they judge mine. My preservation ensures that I will see oblivion played out. The fate of angels, a mere trap. Purgatory or infinity but not death. Certainly not death.
I am finally fitted behind a thick glass. I have heard them say it will not shatter with the thrust of a hundred bayonets. The lighting focused above and around me will keep me present for millennia. The magic they produce to keep me safe reinforces that same magic which first caught me and holds me compressed here still, a glimmer in her eyes not yet swallowed by the linseed, eyes which used to have such delicate lashes, and hair which once held the fair golden shimmer of a Mediterranean sunset. This day is the same day as when I arrived at Fontainebleau, and the millions of days that came after; an endless procession of tomorrows stretch out before me.
rhonda zimlich (she/her/hers) is a professorial lecturer at American University in Washington, DC teaching writing in many forms. she has been published by several literary journals including Brevity, Past-Ten, American Writer’s Review, and was awarded the 2020 Literary Award in Nonfiction from Dogwood, a Journal of Poetry and Prose at Fairfield University, and the 2021 Fiction Award from Please See Me.