In the first of a two-part feature, George R Vaughan spoke to Italian princesses Natalia and Irene Strozzi about their distant relative Lisa Gherardini, better known to much of modern society as the Mona Lisa.
Everyone knows the Mona Lisa.
It is arguable the most recognised work of art in the world today. However, what many people may not have realised until more recently is that the woman at the centre of this famous painting had a history all of her own. Recent studies have shed some interesting light on the story of a young woman who was to become one of the most celebrated models ever committed to canvas.
Her name was Lisa Gherardini and we now know that she was the wife of a socially prominent silk merchant from Florence named Francesco del Giocondo. Apart from the fact that she was his second wife, very little else was initially known about the mysterious woman. Records do show that she was born in 1479, raised at her family’s estate in Tuscany and married del Giocondo in 1495.
New research conducted in 2004 by Italian scholar Giuseppe Pallanti also seems to suggest that Leonardo di Vinci’s father was a friend of Francesco del Giocondo and it was through this association that the portrait was eventually created.
When she sat for the painting, probably around the start of the 16th century, Lisa would have been about 24 years old.
And as the saying goes; the rest was history.
Well, at least it was until an Italian genealogist, Domenico Savini, announced that he had located Lisa Gherardini’s living descendants in the form of Italian princesses Natalia and Irina Strozzi.
Then suddenly it seemed there was another chapter to be told in this fascinating tale.
The Strozzi’s themselves are no strangers to the media spotlight and their ancestry can be traced back to the days of Machiavelli and the Medici dynasties.
Italy is full of dukes and barons, princes and princesses.
Some have bought their titles, some have fabricated them. And then there are those who have inherited them as a birthright.
Fortunately, the Strozzi sisters fall into the latter category, although it is a title both young women do little to publicise and carry with humility and grace.
Yet they are personalities who share very different lifestyles. The younger Irene openly confesses to shying away from the limelight; her chosen career outside of the family wine business is economics and following her degree in the subject, she has successfully worked her way to the fore of her profession.
“Being part of such a dynasty means that I am always going to be involved with the family business but I also want to pursue interests outside of my upbringing. However, the background of my studies means that I can be of particular use to the Guiccardini Strozziempire”.
When one talks about the Strozzi family one has to realise we are addressing a lineage that stretches back over 1000 years and is involved with some of Italy ’s most colourful, historical figures. In fact, the oldest document which can bear testimony to the existence of Cusona (the family estate and company headquarters) dates back to 994. The famous personalities and the political and economic influence of the Strozzi and Guicciardini families, linked at various times by blood relationships, have left their mark not only on Tuscany but also on Italy and Europe.
In contrast to Irene, her older sister, Natalia thrives off the attention. A budding actress, author and instrumental figure in the company, she is in many ways, the alternative image of her younger sibling.
When I caught up with them both at their wonderful estate in the Tuscan hills close to Florence, Natalia was eager to tell me more about her recently published book – Easy To Remember – which covered the eventful first three decades of a woman who is barely 32 and yet has already experienced more than most people could hope to enjoy in a lifetime.
Over that period of time, she has been a dancer, an actress, a friend of world-famous politicians and the sales and marketing manager of the Guicciardini Strozzi family business.
The book focuses on some of her wonderful experiences, including a close relationship with teacher and family friend Rudolph Nureyev, whose tuition and guidance saw the young Natalia perform at the very highest level in some of the world’s most prestigious ballets.
“I continued dancing until I was 23 and even though I no longer perform, it remains one of my greatest loves and I owe so much of what I have achieved in that arena to Nureyev. I became the dancer I was because of him.”
She was also befriended whilst only a young child by the enigmatic Hollywood screen icon Gregory Peck following a chance meeting in 1982. The 5-year-old Natalia made such an impression on the actor and his wife that they remained friends of the family until the great man’s death.
“He (Gregory Peck) was such a lovely man. I met his wife first whilst my family and I were in Positano. The next evening we happened to see her again amongst a throng of photographers and when she noticed me and my parents she came over to sit with us and introduced us to her husband.”
Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps not too ironic then that Natalia’s other love is performing.
“Outside of music I have always been fascinated by cinema and acting is another art form that I have a great passion for. I have made two movies in Russian(she speaks the language along with English, Spanish, French and her native Italian tongue) and another here in Italy (she played the lead in a TV production about St Rosalia the patron saint of Palermo) as well as a small part in the acclaimed television series Band of Brothers. My appetite for this work is as voracious as ever and I have plenty of other projects in development. ”
Natalia and Irene have both grown up in the shadow of great men and women and their home has seen some of the world’s most influential politicians and personalities become first guests and then friends within its walls.
Former PM Tony Blair and his family often stay with them. When they took their much-publicised trips to Italy, it was in the bosom of the Strozzi’s that they enjoyed their hospitality. Others, such as Berlusconi and France ’s President Nicholas Sarkozy have also been known to visit but you get a sense that for these two remarkable women, it was all very “matter-of-fact”. But then you would not expect Princesses born of royal blood to behave in any other way. The brick and timber of Villa Cusona have become used to influential and powerful figures walking through them.
With a twinkle in her eye, Natalia then informed me that she was even related to one of the 20th century’s greatest figures.
“Sir Winston Churchill was related to me also. During the 17th century, my ancestors were united through marriage in London with the Marlborough family.”
Was there no end to the personal connections this family had!