Metro Weekly

Historic Journey: L.M. Elliott’s “Da Vinci’s Tiger”

L.M. Elliott's new novel tells of a 15th century Italian girl who takes up residence in the National Gallery of Art

Leonardo da Vinci: "Ginevra de' Benci"

Leonardo da Vinci: “Ginevra de’ Benci”

“I grew up in a world of anecdotes,” says L.M. Elliott. “I knew a lot of incredibly eloquent, droll little old ladies. They would sit under their old oak trees with pink lemonade, and just tell stories that were all very human.”

A former writer for The Washingtonian and author of Under a War Torn Sky, Elliott has lived her life surrounded by stories. It’s what inspired her to become a journalist — that and her relentless thirst for knowledge. “I had always enjoyed journalism,” she says, “because it gave me the reason to ask a lot of questions.”

That curiosity led Elliott on a journey through history. From World War II to the Italian Renaissance, she can talk through almost any time period, because, chances are, she’s written about it — often emphasizing the human drama behind major historical events. “I grew up recognizing that ordinary people had extraordinary stories to tell,” she says. Her latest book, Da Vinci’s Tiger, might be her most human story of all. It centers around one girl, one painter, and one extraordinary portrait.

L.M. Elliott - Photo: courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
L.M. Elliott – Photo: courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Hanging in the National Gallery of Art, Ginevra de’ Benci’s portrait is the only work by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas. “It is this haunting and luminous portrait,” says Elliott. Gazing out at the viewer, Ginevra de’ Benci stands apart from other paintings of the time, as 15th century women were usually painted in profile. Its beauty has caught the attention of many a visitor to the museum, including Elliott herself. “It was one of those things that the instant I saw her, I knew there was a story behind that quiet dignity and strength,” she says. “I read every scrap about Ginevra before I wrote a word about her.”

What she unearthed was a story full of romance, intrigue, and action. At the heart of the novel is a semi-fictionalized account of Ginevra’s friendship with the famed artist, and the painting that was the root of their relationship. “Her portrait and her life encapsulate all the most poignant, and bittersweet aspects of mankind,” says Elliott. “The longing to create, the joy of imagination, and the fear of failure.”

Da Vinci’s Tiger

This Sunday, Elliott is bringing her novel back to its muse in an open reading at the National Gallery of Art. “I think we can all see a bit of ourselves in that beautiful, full-of-thought face,” Elliott says. “It’s the magic of Leonardo’s ability to convey the motions of the mind, hints of the soul behind his paint, but also Ginevra’s willingness to open herself up to us.”

Da Vinci’s Tiger (Deckle Edge, $17.99) will be released on Nov 10th at Elliott will read excerpts at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday, Nov. 8th at 2 p.m. Free. Visit or

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