Unveiling the Mystery: The Woman Behind the $350 Million Masterpiece
by Baeleit on Sep 11, 2023
Few pieces carry the weight of fascination quite like Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (1457-1521). It was recently valued at a staggering $350 million! This masterpiece showcases the countenance of a subject that is often compared to the most famous painting in the world, the “Mona Lisa.” So, who is this young woman? Why the “non-smile?” What’s the back-story? Behind her enigmatic appearance lies a compelling story that transcends time and tradition, and whose identity is eternally preserved in the cannons of history.
Exploring Ginevra’s World
Believed to have been commissioned as an engagement portrait, this painting captures a poignant moment in a young woman's life—a celebration of her impending marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. But what strikes us most is the haunting sadness in Ginevra de’ Benci’s eyes. Lacking any expression of liveliness, this portrait is said to reveal the sorrow of a teenager who was forced to marry against her will.
In any other circumstance, Leonardo da Vinci might have remained devoted to his religious themes. After all, they had served him well during the early stages of his career. Yet, there was something about the aesthetic beauty of this young woman that lured him into the realm of secular portraiture.
Ginevra’s flawless, chalk-white skin, her porcelain features, and that reserved, somewhat impenetrable expression spoke volumes about the 16-year-old aristocrat. Like most portrait subjects of the Renaissance, Ginevra hailed from wealth and education, known not just for her beauty but also for her poetic and conversational prowess. In an era where virtue and modesty were prized, her beauty was seen as a reflection of her inner goodness.
The Admirers and the Enigma
Ginevra was no stranger to admiration. An intellectual and a symbol of virtue, poets and admirers alike composed verses in her honor. Yet, it was Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence, who held a special place in her heart. A great lover of the arts, Bernardo was a man both famous and flawed. He was married, had a son, and a mistress, yet his admiration for Ginevra transcended the boundaries of romance. Their letters and shared thoughts hinted at a connection deeper than words.
Despite being in his early forties and ensnared in the complexities of marriage, Bernardo was captivated by Ginevra’s charm. Their correspondence, filled with thoughts and poems, painted a picture of an intimate connection that defied the conventions of their time. Many speculate that it was he who commissioned her portrait, a symbol of his admiration and esteem.
A Portrait of Innovation
Rather small in size, this 15 x 15-inch portrait reveals young Leonardo as an innovator. In a daring leap from convention, he placed the young Genevra in an open setting, defying the prevailing norms that held women confined within the walls of their family homes. The three–quarter pose (as opposed to full figure), capturing Genevra's unwavering composure, is among the first in Italian portraiture for either sex. The painting is also characterized by a hint of tension; observe the stark contrast of the looming, dark juniper bush hovering over her delicate, pale skin, perhaps signifying familial duty. The placement of her body and head turned completely toward the observer (note the cold stare) is meant to compel the viewer to look beyond the outer beauty, and establish a connection with the sitter. The marble appearance of her complexion – smoothed with Leonardo’s own hand – is framed by the undulating golden ringlets of her hair, contrasting beautifully with the halo of spikes from the juniper bush. This portrait is among Leonardo's earliest experiments with the new medium of oil paint.
The Hidden Symbolism
Beneath the surface of this exquisite portrait lies a hidden narrative. A wreath of laurel, palm, and juniper encircles Ginevra’s name, each element carrying profound symbolism. The central juniper represents chastity. The palm stands for moral virtue, while the laurel indicates artistic or literary inclinations. Did this cryptic arrangement hint at a clandestine relationship between Ginevra and her platonic admirer Bernardo Bembo?
All three branches are connected by a banner accompanied by the inscription “VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT” (Beauty adorns virtue). It alludes to Plato’s belief that inner virtue finds expression in outer beauty. However, an infrared examination of the painting reveals another quote, hidden beneath the visible one, reading “Virtue and Honor,” the personal motto of Bernardo Bembo. The intertwining of palm and laurel in his personal emblem with the smaller juniper, representing Ginevra, is often interpreted as an allusion to an intimate relationship between the two.
The Vanishing Love Affair
While rumors of a love affair surrounded them, Ginevra's virtue remained unblemished. Bernardo ultimately departed Florence, leaving behind gossip in his wake. His return in 1478 hints at the complexities in their relationship. As he finally departed for good in 1480, Ginevra's life took an uncertain turn. In a tax return from 1480, Ginevra's husband speaks of the high costs caused by a prolonged illness of his wife. Given the chronological context, it is possible that her illness was related to the departure of Bernardo Bembo. Famed Florentine statesman, Lorenzo de' Medici, later dedicated two sonnets to her, in which he consoles her and asks her not to look back.
A Turning Point in Art History
Ginevra’s portrait marked a significant shift in Leonardo’s artistic journey. At just 22 years of age, we can see that he was starting to come out of his shell a little bit more. His precision and lifelike mastery left his contemporaries in awe. In painting this young woman, Leonardo created a psychological portrait, one that renders hidden emotions. As one of his peers remarked, “he painted Ginevra d ’Amerigo Benci with such perfection that it seemed to be not a portrait but Ginevra herself.” Its lifelike and forthright portrayal was revolutionary in the history of painting.
A Glimpse of Florence
The painting is not just a study of Ginevra but also a window into her world. Over her left shoulder, an idyllic landscape unfurls, with rolling hills and a tranquil river meandering into the distance. The dreamlike quality of this richly painted and atmospheric landscape added an extra layer of aesthetic charm to this masterpiece. It's a glimpse into the Florence that Ginevra knew, and a life she'd soon leave behind.
The Missing Piece
Yet, a nagging mystery persists—a portion of the painting, roughly a third of it, is missing. Historians believe it was removed, probably because it was damaged. Based on a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, it is believed that the part that is cut off probably shows Ginevra folding or crossing her hands in her lap. For Leonardo, hands were an essential means of expression; as important as the face. It's a pity that this part is missing as Leonardo was a specialist in drawing hands. Below is a depiction of how the complete portrait may have looked.
Fading Into History
Ginevra's story retreats into the shadows after 1480. No sources mention her as an active member of Florentine society, and she eventually retired to the countryside, leaving behind the whispers of a bygone era. Her husband, Luigi di Bernardo di Lapo Niccolini, passed away in 1505, and their marriage remained childless. Ginevra de' Benci herself breathed her last in 1520, aged 63.
A Masterpiece Finds a New Home
Dated c. 1474, Ginevra de' Benci now resides at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. It's a testament to Leonardo's timeless artistry and an ever-evolving mystery that continues to captivate modern minds.