The Story


May 2019 sees the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death yet he is still celebrated as one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. His anatomical research and inventions, supported by the most intricate drawings were centuries ahead of their time.


Controversy has always surrounded the Mona Lisa. Research has now revealed many alterations to the original, the most notable being the overpainting of a typical headdress of the period, the form of which can be detected around Giaconda’s hair. Changes to the hands and other detail keep the scholars wondering if it is all truly the work of the Master.


Our story of intrigue, clandestine affairs, blackmail and betrayal attempts to explain events surrounding the production of the masterpiece. Dates, characters and locations are as accurate as history will allow.  It is, however, first and foremost a dramatic interpretation, woven around the known facts. Of necessity some characters are fictional and certain events assumed.

What we can be sure of is that the painting was never delivered to the man who commissioned it. It was kept by Leonardo and bequeathed to his favourite apprentice and close companion Salai, who had it with him at the time of his death.



The Prologue is inspired by Amilcare Ponchelli’s 1876 Opera, ‘La Gioconda’, which strangely enough has no connection at all with the Mona Lisa. This itself was loosely based on the 1835 play ‘Angelo, Tyran de Padoue’ by Victor Hugo.




Our story takes place in Florence, largely in autumn 1503. However the extraordinary events of those few months are set in motion some thirty years before, on the day of the Regatta del Palio on the River Arno...





It’s a feast day - a public holiday and it seems like the whole city is out to enjoy it.

In the Piazza della Signoria, outside the Medici Palace, Bastiano is scornfully watching the crowd.  Bastiano is not a nice man. Florence is a city ruled by political intrigue, and Bastiano, a state spy, styles himself as the ‘Grand Inquisitor’.  When the main event is announced the people rush to the river and the square empties.


As it does Aragona Farnese is crossing the Piazza with her mother Giovanna who is old and almost blind. Bastiano and Aragona have history. He has tried many times to seduce her but she will have none of it. The arrogant Bastiano yet again makes unwanted advances and there is an argument during which Aragona scratches his face. Bastiano is incensed.


The crowd starts to return with some of the boatmen. The local favourite Zuane has lost, and couldn’t understand it:  ‘We were leading and then suddenly we were becalmed’.  

Bastiano seeing a chance of revenge tells them that it was almost certainly witchcraft, and lies to implicate Aragona’s mother. The crowd turn on Giovanna and threaten to take her to the river. Lucrezia del Caccia, who knows the Farnese family speaks up for her, and from the Palace steps attempts to placate the crowd.


At the height of the commotion the doors of the Palace swing open and the then ruler of Florence,  Lorenzo di Medici comes out with his wife Clarice. His guards calm the crowd, and he demands to know what is going on. Clarice knows Lucrezia and asks her to explain. Lucrezia defends the family and tells them there is no evidence. Lorenzo asks: ‘Then who accuses this woman’.

The finger is pointed at Zuane, who in turn blames Bastiano. The boatmen confirm Bastiano’s guilt and Aragona tells Lorenzo of his evil intentions towards her. Bastiano tries to sneak away but the guards arrest him. Lorenzo, who has no time for Bastiano, promises he will be thrown in jail and banished from Florence.


As the crowd disperse Aragona and Giovanna go to thank Lucrezia for saving her life, and promise that her kindness will one day be repaid. Giovanna takes a pendant that Aragona is wearing and gives it to Lucrezia.

It is a ‘Cornicello’, a traditional gold and red coral charm that is said to protect the wearer from the ‘evil eye’.

Giovanna tells her: ‘This has been passed down through our family from mother to daughter. Now you must have it. When you have a daughter of your own give this to her, and she will be protected as we have been’.  Lucrezia objects but they are insistent.


Six years later Lucrezia, now Lucrezia Gherardini, does have a daughter – Lisa Gherardini the Mona Lisa...



ACT ONE     -   FLORENCE   Autumn 1503





Thirty years have passed. In the intervening years much has changed. Florence has become a republic, but is still ruled by political intrigue and effectively is controlled by the powerful families.

Leonardo da Vinci disillusioned with his work in Milan for Cesare Borgia - and unpaid - has moved his household back to Florence. He has taken space for a studio and lodgings, filling five rooms on two floors in part of the friary of the Santissima Annunziata.


His favoured ‘apprentice’, known as Salai has already been with him for 13 years. Salai likes the easy life. 

He had been known to steal and cheat when younger, and he spends too much money on clothes and merrymaking. Leonardo is constantly urging Salai to be more responsible and ‘settle down’.


It is clear that Leonardo has deep feelings for Salai. Salai, protective of his position, will tease Leonardo, but would never respond. Nor would Leonardo reveal the true extent of his love for Salai, accepting that it is ‘a love that cannot speak its name’. Homosexuality was quite common in Florence at that time. Some years earlier Leonardo had, with others, been accused of sodomy – a crime punishable by death! He was acquitted, possibly because of his influence in Florentine society.


Salai reveals that he has found a sponsor. It was common practice for rich families to support up-and-coming artists financially - a mark of one’s social standing. Leonardo, finding it hard to believe, asks who it is. It is no other than Aragona. She is now married into the notable Orsini family, but is neglected by her husband and according to Salai ‘madly in love’ with him.


Following a visit from one of the Servite monks asking about the possibility of paying some rent Leonardo informs Salai that their finances are poor and he is considering taking a commission. He is very reluctant. He hates painting for money and would much rather work on his scientific research and inventions these days. However, needs must.


Francesco Del Giacondo, a client of his father’s, is coming next day with his wife to discuss Leonardo painting her portrait. His wife is Lisa Gherardini.





Bastiano has also returned to Florence. Technically he is still banished from the city so he needs to keep a low profile.

Although he has latterly done well in business, he is still hell-bent on revenge for the wasted years in the Bargello’s jail. The spy network has learned of his return, and Niccolò Machiavelli, whose job it is to report on any potential troublemakers, has detailed his brother Totto to find out what he is up to.


Totto finds Bastiano at ‘Il Punto Nero’, a riverside inn run by a couple of rascals Iseppo and Marco where no questions are asked. He befriends him with flattery and drink and learns of his quest to ruin Aragona. Bastiano has found out about her relationship with Salai, and suspects they are having an affair, but has no proof. Although contemptuous of Bastiano Totto offers to help in order to keep an eye on him – with a warning not to do anything hasty. Bastiano promises to reward him well.





Francesco and Lisa arrive at Leonardo’s studio the following day as planned. Francesco is a moderately successful silk merchant, twenty years older than Lisa, who is his third wife. Lisa enjoys Francesco’s modest wealth, while Francesco’s stock has improved by marrying a Gherardini – a well respected family name.


Leonardo has told Salai to be on his best behaviour. Unaware of her tender years they are not sure what Lisa will look like. When Francesco asks her to remove her veil they are both immediately captivated by her beauty. So much so that Leonardo agrees that he will ‘somehow find the time’, and readily accepts the commission.

While Leonardo and Francesco go off to agree the terms Salai starts to flirt with Lisa. He is smitten and can’t stop himself from being over familiar. He goes too far and Lisa, with false indignation, threatens to tell her husband.


Leonardo and Francesco return, and after the couple leave Salai persuades Leonardo to let him do his own study of Lisa, rather than simply help as an apprentice normally would. Leonardo cannot refuse Salai, who goes off to celebrate, leaving Leonardo to reflect on his feelings for the boy.





As Salai leaves Aragona is waiting for him in the street. She chastises him for neglecting her, and he is full of apologies – and excuses. Aragona teases him with a threat to replace him.

Salai is excited by his meeting with Lisa, and thinking they are alone, is a little indiscreet. They talk openly of their liaison. Unknown to them there is a figure lurking - and listening - in the shadows. They agree to meet next day at the Inn, and part with a brief goodbye kiss. Unfortunately the hooded figure is Totto who, true to his promise to Bastiano, has been following Aragona and has heard their plans.





The following day Salai and Aragona keep their assignation at the Inn. ‘Il Punto Nero’ is a popular meeting place for sailors, and a family friend of Aragona’s Captain Donati is drinking there with some of his crew. Salai is a regular visitor, well known to the Captain and the inn-keepers Iseppo and Marco.


Salai and Aragona feel safe to meet there. There’s a lively atmosphere with much singing and merriment. They are flirtatious and indiscreet. Totto has told Bastiano of the meeting and they are both there, sitting discretely in a corner, where they observe the lovers and overhear their conversation.


Bastiano is now convinced and is ready to act, but Totto warns him of the dire consequences should he go to Aragona’s husband without definite proof. Reluctantly Bastiano agrees to bide his time.





Some days later, Lisa goes to Leonardo’s Studio for the first sitting. However, it is not going well and there is tension in the air. Lisa is unsettled by Salai’s presence, and complains about many things – the chair is uncomfortable, the room is too hot, - and she grumbles that there are just too many people in the room. To help create a relaxed atmosphere Leonardo likes to have musicians play while he paints, but is compelled to dismiss them at Lisa’s request.


Salai tries to amuse and impress her but she puts him down, and they behave like a couple of quarrelsome children. Eventually Lisa asks Leonardo if it is absolutely necessary that Salai is there. Leonardo attempts to smooth things over, and makes Salai agree that in future he won't speak unless she speaks to him. Lisa smiles triumphantly at Salai.


As the weeks pass Lisa, by now used to the routine, has become much more relaxed. The painting is well under way and Salai and Lisa are getting on well - they are of a similar age, and it is becoming obvious that there is a mutual attraction. Of course, Lisa is mindful that she is a respectable married woman, but her husband Francesco, being older and more concerned with his business, leaves her feeling neglected. Salai on the other hand is young, exciting, and fun to be with.


One fateful day during a sitting Leonardo is called away on urgent business with the City Fathers. It is agreed that rather than waste the day Salai should carry on with his painting. Left alone, the conversation becomes more open – and more intimate. When Salai compliments her on her beauty Lisa admits that Francesco never seems to notice. While holding her hand on the pretext of adjusting her pose, Salai reveals how he feels about her. Lisa tries not to respond but passion wins the day and they kiss in a lovers embrace. Lisa breaks away in guilt. Her heart says yes but her head says no and in confusion she hurriedly makes to leave.

The next day is a feast day, everyone gathers at the Pallazo Vecchio where there is singing and dancing. As a flustered Lisa leaves Salai asks if he will see her there...





The Piazza is full of people enjoying all the festivities of the public holiday. Musicians play and there is traditional folk dancing where everyone joins in. Aragona is there and Salai introduces her to Leonardo. A drunken Totto is wandering around. To Salai’s surprise and delight Lisa comes along with Francesco.

During a pause in the music Lisa asks her husband if they might join the next dance. Francesco complains that he is much too old for such things and innocently suggests that Salai would oblige! Aragona tries not to appear jealous, but there is tension in the air. Leonardo, mindful of the developing relationship between Salai and Lisa, offers to step in.

However, Totto also has designs on Lisa and pushing the others aside he grabs Lisa’s arm. Salai, unable to control himself, instinctively goes to defend her and confronts Totto. Leonardo, using his worldly wisdom, is able to calm Salai down and defuse the situation, and Totto skulks away.

The music ends and the crowd start to disperse. Aragona is one of the last to leave and as she does she catches sight of someone standing watching her across the square. She is horrified – it is Bastiano!







ACT TWO     -   FLORENCE   late 1503






The months have passed and the painting which will become the Mona Lisa is almost finished. Salai and Lisa inevitably are now lovers and when Leonardo suggests that she won’t need to come to the studio anymore they protest. Salai pleads that he needs to carry on with his painting of Lisa. Leonardo is no fool. He suspects what is going on between them and with Lisa out of the room he angrily challenges Salai. Later Salai tells Lisa that Leonardo knows about their affair and they reflect on what the future might hold.


Meanwhile Bastiano has run out of patience. With Totto as his witness he feels confident enough to go to Aragona’s husband Ludovico and reveal her relationship with Salai. It is a Monday and Bastiano, following Aragona, learns that Ludovico is due to return unexpectedly at the weekend. He confronts Aragona and cannot stop himself from telling her what he plans to do. She denies it of course but when he tells her that Totto Machiavelli will confirm his accusation she is distraught. The Machiavellis are very powerful and Ludovico would surely have to act to save face.


Bastiano, suspecting that Aragona might try something, tells Totto to keep an eye on her. Aragona panics and later that day rushes to the studio to tell Salai. Totto follows her and enters the Friary by a old secret passage, where he can hide and hear all that is going on. When Aragona arrives Salai is alone with Lisa, and hurriedly he has to hide her – out of earshot!


Aragona tells Salai about Bastiano and his threat. Salai’s first reaction is that they will simply deny it, but learning of the Machiavelli involvement he starts to share Aragona’s fears.

Aragona is convinced that when Bastiano tells Ludovico, they will be dead. She has decided that a drastic solution is called for. They must leave Florence! She has the money and tells Salai he must see Captain Donati and organise their passage down the river – before the weekend and with absolute secrecy. Naturally Salai is reluctant but to buy some time he agrees to go along with her plan.

Totto is delighted to hear all this but there is one more surprise in store for him. When Aragona leaves Salai brings Lisa out of hiding and Totto discovers that they too are lovers! Salai tells Lisa he has urgent business and she must leave.


Having heard all he needs to hear Totto makes his way outside and waits for Lisa. Taking a leaf from Bastiano’s book he tells Lisa what he has heard and threatens to reveal her affair with Salai to her husband, unless she gives herself to him. Lisa tells him she would never give in to him and tries in vain to deny it. Totto reminds her of the consequences if he tells Francesco. To add to her distress he tells an unbelieving Lisa about Salai’s romance with Aragona. He gives her some time to think it over, and Lisa runs home in tears.





Next morning Salai goes to the Inn to see the Captain. He feels there must be a better solution to Aragona’s problem with Bastiano, but knowing Bastiano will definitely carry out his threat he decides for now to play it safe and make the arrangements to leave the city. The Captain is understanding and it is agreed that he will organise a boat for them to leave discretely on Friday night.

Salai has no real intention of leaving and when he returns to the studio he decides to tell Leonardo everything, in the hope that he might have an answer. When Leonardo hears about the affair with Aragona he is horrified - and very angry.

His first instinct though is to protect Salai, and as the full story is revealed he realises that perhaps he can intervene. Totto’s infamous brother Niccolò Machiavelli is a good friend – they worked together for Cesare Borgia – and Niccolo’s word is law in that family. He goes off immediately to ask Niccolò to restrain Totto, and have Bastiano warned off.


However Salai’s relief is short-lived. As soon as Leonardo has left, a distraught Lisa arrives and tearfully tells Salai of Totto’s treachery and his threat to tell Francesco. Knowing that Leonardo has gone to the Machiavelli to sort out the Aragona problem, Salai is at his wits end.

They consider braving it out but he knows that Totto can’t be dealt with as easily as Bastiano. He genuinely loves Lisa though, and grasping for an answer he comes to the same conclusion that Aragona did - that they should run away together. Self preservation takes over, and ignoring Aragona's plight he has a sudden inspiration - he could rearrange the plans so that he and Lisa can leave on ‘Aragona’s’ boat – but a day earlier, on Thursday night! He tells Lisa that they are going to have to go away, and explains that he can arrange safe passage out of the city. She is stunned and none too keen on the idea but seemingly has little alternative. Meanwhile he advises that if Totto should contact her she needs to play for time...





Leonardo’s request to Niccolò Machiavelli to have Bastiano warned off was successful. Unfortunately ’warned off ’ is open to interpretation. Unfortunately for Bastiano that is. Leonardo had specifically told Niccolò ‘no violence’, but the message didn’t get through. That night in the small hours as a drunken Bastiano walks home he is set upon and stabbed to death.


At the Inn the following morning Marco and Iseppo , being the gossips they are, are keen to tell everyone about it. Captain Donati is in for breakfast and learning that the poor victim was Bastiano is not surprised when Salai rolls up to speak to him about the boat. He is surprised though when Salai asks about the possibility of leaving on Thursday night instead of Friday. When he remarks that with Bastiano dead his troubles must be over, Salai is taken aback at the news.  


Without naming Lisa he has to explain his latest romantic predicament to the Captain, who reacts with a mixture of pity and admiration, but reassures Salai that a Thursday departure should not be a problem. It is agreed that, unless he hears from him, the Captain will pick them up at the Studio at six in the evening. A relieved Salai goes off, and Captain Donati summons his first mate Lazzaro to go and organise the change of plan.

Alas, Lazzaro is part of Totto’s network of ‘eyes and ears’, and immediately tells him about the change. Totto is also puzzled as to why Salai would still want to leave the city but, as you’d expect from a master of the art of scheming, the realisation rapidly dawns that he must be going away with Lisa, not Aragona!





Salai returns home to tell Leonardo about Bastiano’s demise. Leonardo is distressed. Despite his request to the Machiavelli, he feels responsible for Bastiano’s death. He is comforted though by the realisation that Salai will no longer have to leave him.

Sadly his comfort is short lived. Salai has to tell him about Totto’s threats to Lisa, and of their plan to leave on Thursday. With a mixture of anger and despair he tries to take in the implications of this latest turn of events. He blames himself for not doing enough to save Salai from his own foolishness, but even he can’t see a way out of this.

Salai defends himself by telling Leonardo that Lisa is not like the others. His love for her is genuine, but he doubts that Leonardo would understand what love can do to a man. Leonardo is hurt and again is left to reflect on ‘a love that dare not speak its name’.





Totto, realising what Salai and Lisa plan to do is determined to teach them a lesson. On Thursday, he seeks out Aragona. With Bastiano’s death she is less intimidated by Totto, secure in the knowledge that now she doesn't have to go away. That is until he tells her that Salai still is! At first she refuses to believe him but she is no fool, and as he reveals the whole story about Lisa there is a small doubt growing in her mind. He tells her that the Captain will confirm it and she should go to Leonardo’s studio at six to see for herself. She begins to wonder if it really could be true that Salai has betrayed her with a younger woman.

To further twist the knife Totto sends an anonymous note to Francesco Giacondo, telling him of his wife’s affair with Salai, and the six o’clock assignation...





At the appointed hour Salai and Lisa are waiting at the studio with Leonardo. They have accepted their fate and are resigned to the fact that, for now at least, they will have to leave the city. Totto has entered by the secret passage and is hidden behind the wall, where he can see and hear all that is happening.


The doorbell rings and Leonardo, assuming it will be the Captain goes to answer it. As Salai and Lisa prepare to go they hear raised voices. Lisa is horrified – it is Francesco! He storms in and accuses them. Leonardo tries to defend them but Francesco will hear none of it, and produces the note. Lisa pleads with him, asking how he could doubt her – and on the word of an anonymous note. She tells him it is most certainly the work of Totto Machiavelli, and of his threats to ruin her life. She reassures him that she came only to seek Leonardo’s help.


Francesco is momentarily pacified, but Totto, hearing this, can contain himself no longer. He leaps out, and as Francesco goes for his sword tells him that he can prove his accusations. He tells of the nude portrait of Lisa that Salai keeps hidden. As Salai starts to deny it the doorbell rings again. Aragona has arrived, with Captain Donati.

Totto is triumphant . He tells Francesco that they will confirm the truth – Salai and Lisa are lovers and secretly planned to leave that night. Francesco asks Aragona if this is true.


Turning to Salai and Lisa, Aragona starts to speak.  Lisa falls to her knees and, taking out the Cornicello on her necklace, swears on her mother’s life that Totto lies. Aragona immediately recognises the jewel, and asks where Lisa got it. Lisa tells her the story, and that she is indeed Lucrezia Gherardini’s daughter.

Aragona now knows very well that Totto speaks the truth. She is hurt and betrayed, but remembering the promise that she and her mother made all those years ago she is torn between revenge and mercy. She turns slowly to Francesco... and tells him that Totto is lying, and it is she who is leaving with Salai. The ever faithful Captain confirms that this is so.

Francesco draws his sword but Totto, pulling out a knife grabs Aragona and holds the knife to her throat, using her as a shield as he backs towards the passage. Furiously ranting and yelling betrayal, with a final curse he stabs Aragona through the heart and escapes. As the terrible reality of what they have just witnessed sinks in Francesco and the Captain make to go after Totto and call out the Militia. Lisa and Salai try to help the dying Aragona, but there is nothing they can do. She dies in Lisa’s arms.

Leonardo is bereft. He tells them that there will be no more work on the painting, and it will never be delivered. He and Salai will go away for a while until things settle down, Lisa will go back to her family, and they must vow never to see each other again.

With a last embrace they part – forever.




FINALE    -    MILAN 1524


The final scene in our story takes place in 1524 on Salai’s deathbed. Typically he met an untimely end, having been wounded by a crossbow in a duel.


Surrounded by his and Leonardo’s paintings, in the closing song he looks back over his life and reflects on the futility of it all. He was 43 years old.


In his will the Mona Lisa was valued at 505 Florentine lire – probably the equivalent of a year’s income, and an exceptional price at the time for what is after all a quite small painting on a thin sheet of poplar wood...




Lisa Giacondo lived out her life happily with Francesco and her family - they had five children. Salai stayed with Leonardo and worked with him until his death, living at various times in Florence, Milan, and at the Vatican in Rome. They were so close that many art historians believe that some of Salai’s work has been attributed to Leonardo, and vice versa. Finally, with failing health it becomes harder for Leonardo to work and in 1516 he moved to France, with Salai, as the guest of his patron King Francois,  where he died in 1519,  aged 67.

In 1515 Salai revealed the existence of the ‘Monna Vanna’, the nude version of the Mona Lisa. However, the facial features are more like Salai than Lisa! It is generally believed that this painting is a copy by Salai of a lost original which, given that it could still incriminate Lisa, Salai might well have decided to destroy. Like the Mona Lisa the Monna Vanna has been copied many times over the years.

In Leonardo’s will Salai inherited money, property and many paintings – including the Mona Lisa. He was left one half of Leonardo’s vineyard near Milan, where he married and lived very comfortably for the rest of his short life.