Portrait of Ginevra De’ Benci is one of four individual portraits undoubtedly painted by Leonardo da Vinci. The painting was finished around 1474-1476 in Florence, Italy. It is considered to be one of the earliest experiments of da Vinci with the new medium using oil paint. The woman depicted in the painting is a daughter of a wealthy banker at her marital age. This portrait is known to be the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the United States at the present moment. It is exhibited at the National Gallery of Washington. Although genuine portraits painted by Da Vinci are studied in details, there is still a question what makes these portraits the outstanding pieces of art in the history of European painting.
Ginevra De’ Benci’s portrait is distinguished with a cramped organisation of the depicted space. The sitter is placed in front in an open setting, which was an innovation for the time when women were usually depicted at their homes. At this painting, Ginevra appears to be near the border of the picture with a juniper bush surrounding her head like an aura right behind her, which symbolises a feminine virtue. Some researchers state that juniper “is called ginepro in Italian and genevra in the Tuscan dialect, punning on the sitter’s name” (Takumi, 2015, p. 325). The painting is also characterised by a hint of tension made by the contrast of a juniper bush and paleness of the sitter’s face, as well as by the placement of her body and head turned completely toward the observer.
Close-up views of the portrait remind the early Flemish portrait paintings. It is noted that “the cold stare, reinforced by a slight turn of the head, of Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is similar to that of Petrus Christus’ Portrait of a Young Lady” (Takumi, 2015, p. 326). This fact preserves a special place for this portrait in the history of painting because it is stated that da Vinci had broken the Florentine traditions of painting portraits by this small piece of art. Some researchers point out that “throughout the 1480s female portraits were completed predominantly in profile” (Zöllner, 2013, p. 69). The portrait might be created before the sitter’s wedding or engagement. Still, it is noted that Leonardo might have depicted Ginevra more like a poetess, which also explains why he portrayed her in a natural setting. The sitter was well known in Florence with her poetic ambitions and liked the poetry of Petrarch, sharing this passion with Bernardo Bembo who was her platonic lover. The painter also shows Ginevra’s pureness expressed in the beauty of her body, emphasising it with the waving banner that is translated as “beauty embellishes virtue.”
It is stated that the bottom part of the painting was cut down because the lower branches of the bush are not crossed. What caused the cutting of a part of the picture and what it looked like, remains unknown. There are suggestions that Ginevra could hold a wedding bouquet in her hands. The sitter looks sad and sulky, which might be explained by the fact that she had to marry a wealthy merchant she does not love. Some sources note that neither Ginevra’s nor her husband’s family never owned the portrait (Takumi, 2015). It was ordered by Bernardo Bembo, which explains why da Vinci broke some painting traditions as it might be a wish of the customer. Therefore, this work has a great historical and cultural meaning as an innovation in painting female portraits.
Although genuine portraits painted by da Vinci are studied in details, it is important to understand what makes these portraits the outstanding pieces of art in the history of European painting. It was pointed out that the portrait of Ginevra De’ Benci was influenced by the style of Flemish painting. Therefore, it could be stated that the early style of da Vinci bore a hint of innovations, had a lot of symbolism and tended to break the rules, which makes his works interesting and easy to remember.
Takumi, E. T. O. (2015). Leonardo da Vinci and Flemish painting: On the portrait of Ginevra de’Benci. Journal of International Philosophy, 1(4), 323-330.
Zöllner, F. (2013). From the face to the aura: Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato and the history of female portraiture. In Körte, Mona (Ed.): Inventing faces: Rhetorics of portraiture between Renaissance and Modernism (pp. 67-83). Berlin, Germany: Independent Publishing Group.