The Musings of a Muse

The Musings of a Muse

Jaded. Predictable. Snoozefest.

The New York Times labelled my second book a disappointment. 

After the author’s sensational debut, hopes were high for her latest offering. Sadly, this book is nothing but a gimmick, one that is best avoided.

Each word was indelibly seared into my brain. What more could I have done? I had included every tried and tested formula in my plot, and yet it bombed. Not to mention the money splurged on the fancy analytical tools that assured me that I would be on every bestseller list. My book deal with Bloomsbury and my future as a writer hung in delicate balance.

To get away from it all, I purchased a ticket to Paris. I would rest, rejuvenate, and ruminate before embarking on my next manuscript. If my third book failed, I would have to hang up my writing boots forever. I willed myself to be optimistic.  I had reached the City of Love. How long could inspiration evade me?

My first stop was at the Louvre, a museum that housed the most magnificent art collections in its baroque-style palace structure. Being the quintessential tourist, I headed straight to the Mona Lisa. I couldn’t wait to update my social media and watch it explode with likes; soothing balm to my bruised ego, a welcome change from all that trolling.

I found her in no time. The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, stared at me from behind her bulletproof glass case, her smile equally enigmatic and alluring. While she was just as I imagined, it felt surreal to see the real thing; to see her, the real her.

What surprised me was that the wing was empty. Where were the massive crowds that usually thronged to see the star attraction of the Louvre?

Excusez-moi, Monsieur,” I called out to a security officer.

“Why is no one here?”

Mademoiselle, the newly renovated wing on the other side is being inaugurated as we speak, by none other than Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio. The crowds are all there. You are quite lucky. You get lone time with this masterpiece. Enjoy!”

Perhaps, the universe decided to cut me some slack. About time.

Once the officer left, I whipped out my mobile to take a picture.

“Do you know that some bumbling guide once announced to his group that the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo DiCaprio? He must have assumed that it was Leonardo da Vinci who starred in the Titanic.”

I looked up, startled. There was no one around, except me and the Mona Lisa.

Whose words were these? Did the painting just speak? Was I dreaming?

“With COVID lockdowns, I didn’t get visitors for a while. It was so boring. And now, when we are finally open, some actor steals my thunder! “

Mona Lisa continued nonchalantly, oblivious to my shock.

“You can talk? How?” I croaked in disbelief.

“Everything in the universe can speak. You just need ears to listen. Besides, I believe you would make a good companion for conversation, being a writer and all.”

Could a painting read my mind?

“How do you know I write?” I demanded. 

“You are engrossed in your thoughts, harbouring a distant look on your face. I would say you either paint or you write. Given that you talk to yourself, I would place my bets on writer.”

Impressive! Wait, did I say that aloud?

“How do I address you? Lisa? Mona?”

“I prefer Monna. Short for Madonna. Mona in my native Italian…just means stupid.”

“Oh! How is your English so good?”

“I pick up different languages from the tourists that visit me every year. French and Italian come naturally to me. I can also converse in twenty other languages including Mandarin and Hindi!”

My admiration for her was growing by the minute.  

Wait, ‘the painting’ had become ‘her’? Well, it wasn’t every day one met a talking artwork.

“Tell me, why are you here?” she demanded.

“To see you…” I stammered.

No! Nein! Nahi! Non!”

With her talent for histrionics, she had clearly missed out on a career in theatre.

“Forget me. Let’s talk about you first. You are a cultural icon! “I gushed.

“That I am!” 

Monna and modesty didn’t seem to go together.

I stared hard to check if she was fluttering her eyelashes but realized she had none.

“Do you know that women are emulating your eyebrow-free, eyelash-free, look for the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum?” I asked, intending to inform rather than inquire.

“I did have eyebrows and eyelashes, but they got eroded over time,” Monna protested indignantly. 

I held up my mobile to show her pictures of celebrities dressed for the Met Gala.

“Tut-tut. Gilded cages and half-cut sponges! What is this nonsense? The Renaissance was the golden age of fashion! We wore delicate silk and satin gowns. Flaring skirts and V-necks; now that’s what you call fashion! Not pieces of cloth worn daintily here and there!” she lamented.

Monna and I seemed to be on the same page. Perhaps, I could confide in her?

“I’m here for inspiration. My last novel bombed,” I confessed, rather wistfully.  

She nodded out of sympathy.

 “I’m going through a rough phase, and in dire need of crafting the next best-seller!” 

“Hmm. You are looking at it the wrong way. Let me tell you about my artist, my creator, Leonardo da Vinci. Writing and painting are not that different. Perhaps, his life may grant you the answers you seek?”

I nodded.

The art narrating the story of the artist. This would be interesting!

1503, Florence

Francesco del Giocondo, a renowned silk merchant, was feeling joyful. His wife Lisa had given birth to a son, their third child. His Lisa was a dutiful and chaste woman. She was not only a good wife but also the perfect stepmother to his eldest son Bart. He desired to express his admiration through a flamboyant gesture.

“Amore Mio, Lisa! I have a gift for you!”

Lisa looked up hopefully, nursing her infant with one hand, the other hand trying to soothe a crying Bart. She ardently wished it would be something useful, like a new maid or silken finery. 

“I’m having your portrait commissioned! It shall be enshrined at home to celebrate your virtues.”

“Yes, my Lord.” 

She bent her head to hide her disappointment. Men and gifts!

Francesco summoned his manservant.

“Marco! Go and fetch that artist, Leonardo da Vinci. Tell him I wish to avail of his services.”

“Signore, he no longer does portraits.”

“I hear he wishes to secure the Government contract for painting ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ at Palazzo Vecchio. Tell him that I can put in a good word for him.”

As Marco sped away on his errand, Francesco, assured himself. 

“Leonardo is the right person for the job. For one, he is talented. But more importantly, he is safe. The rumour mills say he is celibate and disinterested in women. They hint that his interests lie elsewhere. This portrait will take days or even months to complete. I need to ensure that Lisa’s virtuous name remains unsullied. He will be perfect.”


“Signore da Vinci is here!” Marco announced.

Francesco turned to receive his guest, a tall, handsome man with curly hair and chiselled features, a striking Adonis. Thank God for the rumours, he thought. Though if true, God and the church both would be very angry.

He addressed Leonardo.

“I would like you to paint my wife, the blessed Lisa. Please depict her as the paragon of virtue and motherhood through your art.”

“Si, Signore. My only request to you is to let me work at my own pace.”

“That is alright. I will pay you only on completion though!”

Leonardo agreed. For him, neither the fame nor the Florins mattered. He hadn’t wanted to take up this job, but Francesco was powerful and could help him gain new commissions. Commissions that would challenge him as an artist.

“Lisa awaits you in the reception room.”

Marco led Leonardo to Lisa. She was seated, her hands folded, and her eyes bowed. A shy Florentine housewife; definitely no stunning beauty. Leonardo greeted her and set up his Lombardy poplar board and oil paints. Before he could begin painting, a little girl stormed in. 

“Madre! Bart hit me!” 

Lisa rushed to iron out a truce between the warring siblings. Next, the infant had to be fed.  She had barely settled down, when another child barged in, demanding something else. This pattern continued for long, and the portrait progressed at a snail’s pace. Days stretched to weeks, weeks to months.

During one such sitting, Lisa mustered the courage to talk to the man who was absorbed in his art.

“I love my husband very much and I’m posing for this portrait to please him.”

“Love! Such a complex emotion! I wish to study the human body, to discover the secrets of the heart, and what makes us love the way we do.”

“Have you ever been in love?” Lisa inquired curiously.

Leonardo’s expression hardened.

“What would the world understand of that, that I do not understand myself.”

The two fell into an uneasy silence, as Leonardo took out a washcloth to wipe his paint-splashed fingers.

“My husband says this portrait will enhance my beauty. I know my looks are only ordinary…”

“Signora, you are a mother, and all mothers are beautiful.”

Lisa brightened up.

“What about your mother?”

Leonardo’s face fell.

“I have not been fortunate enough to know her. She was a peasant woman, the mistress of a nobleman, my father. He took me away from her when I was a child.”

Monna’s narration was interrupted by my next question.

“Ah! Leonardo projected his love for his mother through his work. When did he finish the painting?”

“Patience! I’m coming to that!

Leonardo was a dreamer and a drifter. His mind was like a wave dashing against the shore, or like a bird breaking free of its cage to conquer the skies. Time elapsed, yet there was no progress. Francesco was not one to give up. He kept following up. Finally, Leonardo gave in, and showed him how far he had gotten. 

Francesco examined the painting eagerly. It showed Lisa wearing Spanish silks, one hand placed over the other, bearing an enigmatic look on her face. He was upset and perplexed.

“What is this? Is Lisa smiling or not? I do not understand. Her features are not sharp. They are marred by shadows, rendering her melancholic. This is not what I had in mind. Her hair is too plain. Embellish it with pearls, and jewels. Make her features more striking.”

“I understand where Francesco was coming from,” I volunteered.

Monna scoffed at me.

“Today, I see young women in the museum taking selfies and using filters to alter their faces to make them look perfect. Leonardo saw beauty as it was. His art was his view of the world, and not someone’s impossible standards.”

My publisher’s voice rang through my head. 

‘Your heroine needs to be a bombshell! Sex sells!’ 

Despite wanting a real woman to be my protagonist, I was overruled.

Monna’s voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Leonardo used a technique called sfumato, which blends tones into one another lending a hazy life-like appearance. He played with the light and the dark, charming them to dance to his tunes, thus bestowing a three-dimensional effect. He was ahead of his time, and not afraid to go down the less-trodden path.”

Was she taunting me? Had I fallen so low, that even a painting mocked me?

To change the topic, I held up my phone, showing Monna a historian’s analysis.

“Some experts believe that Lisa had cholesterol problems because her portrait had thick bags under her eyes.”

“That’s rich, coming from some burger-chomping, soda-guzzling historian,” Monna retorted.

“For heaven’s sake, Lisa had many children, the youngest being a newborn. Of course, her eyes would be swollen; she would have barely slept. Why doesn’t anyone think of that?”

I smiled.

“Oh, you must be thinking, Mona Lisa is one Moaning Lizzy, complaining about everything.”

“We call them ‘Karen’ nowadays,” I grinned.


“Never mind. So, did Leonardo placate Francesco?”

“Leonardo did not believe in the changes Francesco suggested. Besides, he had already been selected to paint the ‘Battle of Anghiari,’ a panoramic mural. He temporarily discontinued work on the Mona Lisa, citing that the Florentine Government took higher precedence. Francesco couldn’t refute that, however disgruntled he might have been.”

“If this had been 2022, Francesco would have left Leonardo a one-star review, “I commented wryly.

“Leonardo couldn’t have cared less. An artist should never be disheartened by feedback!”

“Didn’t Leonardo ever feel bogged down by his failures? Didn’t he ever want to avoid risk?”

“Never! Nothing mattered more than his creative freedom. Let me tell you the story of his work, ‘The Adoration.’” 

Florence, 1481

“Signore da Vinci, we are pleased to award you the contract for painting ‘The Adoration of the Magi’. The scene should depict the wise kings worshipping baby Jesus in the manger. Please depict the three men, the Magi, in fine Florentine silks. Let the world appreciate the beauty of the handiwork of Florence!”  the head monk instructed Leonardo; this ask being in sync with the latest trend in art at that time. 

Leonardo got to work. When he unveiled his art to show the monks, they gasped.

The Virgin Mary with the baby occupied the centre of the piece, showcasing a moment of adoration, a moment of eternal bonding, a moment so pure and pristine, that nothing else and no one else mattered. Mother and son dominated the spotlight, and everyone else including the Magi merged into the background. 

Monna paused dramatically.

“We do not know what happened, but this work was left unfinished. Some say Leonardo had a falling out with the monks for his drastically different approach. Others say at that time, he moved from Florence to Milan. In all likelihood, it was because he didn’t want anyone to hinder his creative vision. Today, ‘The Adoration’ is considered one of the master’s finest works, even in its unfinished state. 

The artist who follows his instinct will reach the pinnacle of glory someday, no matter how difficult or unconventional his art may seem.”

I thought of my last book. My heart had wanted it to be different, yet my brain chose to play safe.

“Monna…I’m beginning to see a trend here…one unfinished painting after the other.”

“Physicians in these times would probably diagnose Leonardo with ADHD. But you must know this; the artist’s mind is his own, and no one controls it. Art is the air an artist breathes; it consumes his soul and sets his being on fire. Art is the purest expression of love!”

Yeah, try saying that to my publisher when my book fails to meet sales projections.

Since Monna brought up the topic of love, I asked her yet another nagging question.

“Monna, who was Leonardo’s love?”

“Do you see that picture at that part of the gallery? That is of John, the Baptist.”

My eyes fell on a painting of a handsome man. 

“Do you know who modelled for this one? Salai. Leonardo’s favourite apprentice. They say he was the one, but no one knows. It was forbidden love, Leonardo could never admit to it, lest they burned him at the stake.”

“A genius, ahead of his time, and yet he could not love freely. If only he had been born centuries later!” I sighed.

“And what has changed in these times?” Monna challenged.

I was taken aback. Sadly, she was right. We move forward, only to move backward.

“Is Salai connected to you in anyway?”

“Leonardo didn’t deliver me to Francesco. Instead, he kept me with him, refining me over the years. He regarded me a symbol of love, a celebration of it. Love has many forms, but which form did he want to depict? Was it Lisa’s love for Francesco? Was it Leonardo’s love for a mother he never knew? Or his own deep clandestine longing for Salai? 

Do you notice that Mona Lisa is an anagram of Mon Salai? My Salai? Perhaps, Leonardo superimposed Salai’s face over Lisa’s, to immortalize a love he could never acknowledge.”

I felt sorry for this man; a visionary extraordinaire, an unparalleled genius, a revolutionary in art and science, the world’s greatest thinker. And yet, he was shackled deep within, longing for love he could never have.

Monna continued.

“1516 was a period of upheaval in Italy, and Leonardo fell out with the Pope. He moved to France, where he was welcomed with open arms by the French King Francis.”

“Monna. Is that how you ended up here?”

“Yes. Technically I’m an immigrant, but a very enterprising one! Millions of tourists visit me, generating revenue,” she chuckled.

And that’s why nations must build bridges, not walls for refugees.

“Leonardo died of a stroke in 1519, leaving me to Salai in his will. And why wouldn’t he? I was his most prized possession, and Salai, his most loved one.”

We were quiet for a moment, mourning one of the greatest minds ever known to mankind. It must have been difficult for Monna to bid adieu to her creator. 

“Salai later sold me to the King, who proudly displayed me on the walls of the Chateau Fontainebleau. After the French revolution, I was shifted to Napoleon’s bedroom. Ah, the things I saw and heard there!” Monna scrunched her nose in disgust.

Napoleon’s romantic escapades didn’t interest me. If I craved period romances, I’d rather watch Bridgerton. Thankfully she didn’t care to elaborate.

“After gracing the abodes of monarchs and generals, I finally made my home at the Louvre.”

“Whose face lies beneath your layers?” I persisted.

“Oh, I’m quite the conundrum. What if I told you that Leonardo superimposed his face, and not Salai’s, to depict his union with his art?”

I was flabbergasted at this revelation.

“Who are you then? Lisa? Salai? Or Leonardo himself? Am I staring at the face of da Vinci?” I demanded.

That enigmatic smile again!

Monna spoke softly. 

“The art and the artist can never be separated. When they are distinct, the art is soulless, and the artist, lost. The question you need to ask, is not who I am, but who are you?”

“But why?” 

“I want you to stay true to your art, however challenging it may be. If there is one thing you must take away from Leonardo’s life, it is this.”

I was lost in contemplative thought. Encouraged, Monna persisted.

“Why do you crave instant fame? Instead, why don’t you create something that lasts forever? Something that the world has never seen before, that will inscribe your name permanently into the annals of history. Let it transcend the rules of your time and create ripples into the future, becoming your ever-lasting legacy, your Magnum Opus.” 

“But I want to be popular in my lifetime!”

“If you are lucky, you will make it in your time. But if you are a true artist, your work will render you immortal, even after your time.”

I chewed my lips, as she continued.

“Leonardo said that a painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light. What is your canvas going to be?”

Her words hit deep. An idea had begun to take root in my head, something that my agent would surely object to, for it was nothing like I had attempted before. I had been afraid to try it, but now there was no looking back.

Merci, Monna.”

Our conversation was interrupted by voices, squeals, and footsteps. The crowds had returned. Among them, I noticed a young woman carrying a placard, ‘Leo DiCaprio, Marry Me!’

DiCaprio seemed to have rejected her proposal and departed, paving way for da Vinci. I turned around to witness a sea of faces hustling to take pictures with the Mona Lisa. 

I walked away; my mind clear. The world would soon see my masterpiece. This time, I would not worry about whether it sold or not, or whether it received rave reviews or not. 

I would stay true to myself and my artistic vision. Somewhere in time, I would create something timeless.

Epilogue: One Year Later

Leonardo da Vinci’s ghost floated through the corridors of the Louvre.

“Monna my dear, what mischief have you been up to?”


“A newly released book is creating waves. It’s being touted as the pièce de resistance of the century. Coincidentally, in the acknowledgments, the author has expressed her gratitude to a Mr. Leonardo da Vinci, and a Ms. Monna. Do you have any idea what this is about?”

“Not a clue! I’ve been busy myself, writing a self-help book for artists.”

Leonardo shook his head in disbelief. He glided away to chat with John the Baptist, reminding himself never to trust someone with an enigmatic smile.

Excusez-moi, Monsieur:  Excuse me, Mr. (French)
Nein, Nahin, Non: No in German, Hindi, and French
Mademoiselle: Miss (French)
Merci: Thank you (French)
Madonna: Italian lady, the Virgin Mary
Amore Mio: My love (Italian)
Signore:  Mr. (Italian)
Si: Yes (Italian)
Florins: Italian currency (coins) 16th century
Madre:  Mother (Italian)
Signora: Mrs. (Italian)
pièce de resistance: Most important or outstanding (French)
Karen: Slang for a demanding and entitled woman
ADHD: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder marked by a pattern of inattention and impulsivity that may interfere with a person’s functioning.
Met Gala dresses:

Disclaimer: This story is fictional and is based on some of the speculative theories on Leonardo da Vinci’s life, and the Mona Lisa; the art, and the artist both enigmas. Creative liberties have been exercised.

Sample reference links:
Please refer to this link for the Adoration, The Battle of Anghiari, and the Mona Lisa.
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