Reader Elle writes:
I’ve heard it said that Joconde cake gets its name from the Mona Lisa, but if that’s true…how?
That’s an interesting story, Elle. It may or may not be true, but that won’t stop me from telling it. It goes like this: the portrait of the Mona Lisa was commissioned by a fellow by the name of Francesco di Bartholommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant who had way too many names, but who nevertheless lived in Florence around the turn of the Sixteenth Century. He commissioned the painting — a portrait of his wife, a commoner by the name of Lisa Gherardini — to commemorate the birth of their second son, Andrea.
The artist, one Leonardo da Vinci, accepted the commission and spent some four years working on and/or fiddling with it. In the end da Vinci became so attached to the painting that he never delivered it and ultimately took it with him to France when he moved there around 1515. He sold it to the King of France and it’s been property of the French government ever since.
But now where was I? Oh yes, the name thing. It just so happens that the surname of the man who originally commissioned the painting, Giocondo, is very similar to another Italian word, gioconda which means “cheerful” or “merry” (like the English word “jocund” or “jocular”). Thus the name of the Mona Lisa is, I’m told, something of a pun there: la Giocanda, the merry one, sort of a joke on that famous half-smile of hers. The French are said to refer to the painting in the same way, only using their equivalent word, joconde.
Assuming again that all this is true, how did the word get to be applied to an almond sponge cake? That’s a lot less clear, but that’s the story as far as I know it!