Lucille Turner’s debut novel Gioconda imagines the untold story of Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance Man, from his upbringing as the bastard child of a notary, through his training as an artist, fleshing out the facts of history to explain why the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, was never delivered to the family who commissioned it and was instead inherited by one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils upon his death.
The novel is fluidly written, with few historical markers making it hard for the reader to judge at exactly which point in history the narrative occurs which aids the author in condensing the events of what is potentially a fifty year period into a relatively short novel, and allows the reader to focus on the polymath’s genius rather than on incident. For me, that’s where the difficulty of this beautifully written novel lies, the author seems to be trying to force a love story out of a true story which is already brilliant. For me, the intrigue in this novel was learning about Leonardo’s dissections and studies which were considered heretical and very dangerous- his relationship with Lisa seemed almost incidental. His character was too focussed on his work and too rational to make the desire to paint Lisa convincing, or the ending of the novel, which links back to the opening chapter, satisfactory. The Leonardo of the opening chapter and the Leonardo of the rest of the book seemed like two very different characters.
Gioconda is a good read, but not a great read. The strength of the novel lies in colourful descriptions of da Vinci’s artistic and scientific works. So while Turner’s attempts to convince me of a relationship between Leonardo and Lisa may not have been wholly successful, I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for a really nice edition of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.