Every great photograph tells a story, but I often find it interesting to read the story behind the photograph — and hence this occasional series of posts. This time it is the turn of an image that has frequently appeared in books and magazines, including the front cover of one property guide, and is also one of the most popular photographs on LodgePhoto.com:
First of all, an answer to a frequently asked question: Yes, it’s a true photograph and the haze behind the farmhouse has not been “photoshopped” into the image! Vignamaggio is a charming Tuscan renaissance villa clinging to the hillside above the town of Greve in Chianti. We first found it while renting a villa a short distance away, further up the road. We saw it was a winery and that was enough by itself for us to stop — but we also knew that Vignamaggio was the location for Kenneth Brannagh’s joyous 1993 Shakespeare film adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing.
Today, the villa is an upscale B&B and winery and had billed itself as “The Birthplace Of Mona Lisa” until just a few years ago. This leads to second most frequently asked question: is it really, truly the birthplace of Mona Lisa, sitter for perhaps the most famous portrait ever? Well… no, sorry. The literature at the villa claims Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Mona Lisa, was born at Vignamaggio in 1479, the daughter of a wealthy Tuscan merchant. There’s just one problem with this: the Gherardinis had sold Vignamaggio 50 years before Lisa was born, and the baptistry records in Florence are clear: she was born and baptised there.
There has been intense speculation over the “actual” identity of the model for Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting. Renaissance art historian Vasari states that it was Lisa Giocondo (nee Gherardini) in his “Lives of the artists”. The only problem was that Vasari was writing 30 years after Leonardo’s death, which was enough wiggle room for some to suggest that Vasari was mistaken and that the sitter was Leonardo himself, or Isabella of Aragon, or Leonardo’s mother, or… you get the picture.
In 2005, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a book that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Giocondo. Lisa was married to a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and this gave rise to the other name of the painting: La Gioconda — also a pun on the jovial expression Leonardo painted.
But no matter: today, a visit to Villa Vignamaggio is primarily about wine and/or olive oil, or to stay in its Bed & Breakfast accomodation. The villa’s Mona Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva is excellent, and they also make a range of “Super Tuscans” — wines grown locally that don’t meet the technical criteria to qualify as Chianti Classico. Don’t let that put you off: only wines made almost entirely from Sangiovese can be Chiantis, so a really good Tuscan cabernet has to be called something else!
The picture was taken with a long lens late on a summer afternoon looking down from the villa itself. One of the things that makes this picture is the quality of light, a natural gift in that part of the world, which is largely responsible for the saturated color of the tile and stone. The atmospheric conditions common at that time of year (September) cause the haze, making for a pleasing contrast between the foreground and the background. Quality of light is one of the most important ingredients in “available light” photography, and is one reason why waiting for the right light can make a huge difference to a picture. That’s also my excuse for enjoying a leisurely Italian lunch with a glass or two of wine: the light’s too strong! Finally, the long lens is important because it helps to blur the background, improving the contrast and composition.
Vignamaggio is a magical place to visit or stay, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
Villa Vignamaggio is a charming restored renaissance villa just outside the town of Greve in Chianti. It’s a beautiful location, is exceptionally photogenic and they make great wine… what more could you ask for? How about also being the birthplace of perhaps the most famous portrait sitter ever: Mona Lisa ? The owners of Vignamaggio crowned the exceptional qualities of their property with the claim that their villa is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — an assertion that I have repeated on this website. The history of that part of the world and the information provided by Vignamaggio on its chain of ownership appears to back up the assertion. However, there’s just one problem: it isn’t true.
In the past few years, Vignamaggio has backed off from their birthplace claim and now says “Legend has it that Lisa Gherardini spent a lot of time at Vignamaggio” So what exactly is going on here?
Recent research led me to the English translation of an Italian book, “Mona Lisa Revealed” by Giuseppe Pallanti. Mr Pallanti set out to connect the life of the model (Lisa Giocondo, nee Gherardini) with the painting, and the result is a fascinating book that provides a clear, vibrant glimpse into the world of renaissance Florence and the life of Lisa Gherardini, her husband Francesco del Giocondo (a wealthy silk merchant), Leonardo da Vinci and his father Piero. It is impeccably researched, using Florentine medieval tax returns and registers of births and other official documents. And this is where the birthplace claim of Villa Vignamaggio parts company with historical record.
Lisa Gherardini was born in Florence on 15 June 1479 in a house on Via Maggio, and not at Vignamaggio as the villa owners claimed. This is recorded in the grandly titled Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore di Firenze “Battesimi” (baptismal record) for 1457-1491. Could confusion between Via Maggio and Vignamaggio be to blame? Perhaps, except that 57 years previously in March 1422, the Gherardini family had sold Vignamaggio to the Gherardi family. This is recorded in the Florentine tax records, the “Catasto” — a kind of medieval 1040 tax return. Despite the similarity of names, it was Lisa Gherardini who later married Francesco del Giocondo and who eventually sat for Leonardo .
Giuseppe Pallanti, author of the book, was born in Greve — the closest town to Vignamaggio — and goes out of his way in the text to document the chain of ownership of Vignamaggio, even though it is peripheral to the story of the Gherardini family. His book shows that he knows the Greve area well, and I’m sure he has been to Vignamaggio; my guess is that this is his way of obliquely refuting the villa owners’ claim.
So, what are we to make of all this? A bit of embellishment where non was required: Vignamaggio is a beautifully restored villa in a superb location, is supremely photogenic and makes great wine — and good olive oil, too. Mr Pallanti’s book was published in 2006, seven years after I first visited the villa and many years after the current owners bought it, so perhaps there was some legitimate confusion. Regardless, I love to visit and I’ll be going back in the future.
Final post script: Pallanti’s book is very convincing that Lisa Gherardini was the sitter but there was still some wiggle room for alternative theories. Shortly before the book was published, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a medieval ledger that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo: the true Mona Lisa after all.