Saturday Art: da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci
The summer is ending, so I will march down the long eastern corridor to get quickly to the National Gallery of Art treasure, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’. The portrait is set off so you will know it’s particularly worth your attention, and took quite a bit of diplomacy for the gallery to acquire.
Many nations like their treasures to stay in their natural home, and Italy is foremost among them. Leonardo da Vinci was one of their greatest artists, and his work is prized and guarded. This work was finally allowed to be acquired only with the assurance it would be shown the respect and attention due it.
The National Gallery describes this work in its own internet site set aside just for the work itself.
One of Leonardo’s earlier works completed while he was apprenticed to Andrea Verrocchio in his Florentine workshop. Here, Leonardo learned a variety of skills that he would master later on in his career. Although this painting is rather traditional, it includes details such as Ginevra’s curling hair that only Leonardo could achieve.
Although a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo is mentioned by three sixteenth-century writers, the attribution of the Washington painting to that artist has been the cause of much debate. It is now accepted by virtually all Leonardo scholars. The date of the portrait, generally given as c. 1474, and its commission, however, are still discussed. The sitter, born into a wealthy Florentine family, was married to Luigi Niccolini in 1474 at the age of sixteen. It was a customary practice to have a likeness painted on just such an occasion. Recently, however, the humanist Bernardo Bembo has been identified as a possible patron. He was the Venetian Ambassador to Florence from 1474-76 and again in 1478-80, dates that have been suggested for the portrait. Bembo and Ginevra, both married to others, were known to have had a platonic affair, an accepted convention at the time.
The heraldic motif on the painted porphyry reverse side of the portrait, with the motto “Beauty adorns Virtue,” praises her, and juniper plants symbolize chastity, considered an appropriate choice for a marriage portrait. The juniper bush, ginepro in Italian, is also a pun on her name.
Leonardo has painted a sensitive and finely modeled image of Ginevra. The undulating curls of her hair are set against her pale flesh, the surface of the paint smoothed by the artist’s own hands. Leonardo’s portrait was cut down at the bottom sometime in the past by as much as one-third. Presumably the lower section would have shown her hands, possibly folded or crossed, resting in her lap.
To arrive in the gallery after long negotiations, the Director, then John Carter Brown, bought a seat for the portrait and himself accompanied her home to Washington, D.C.