Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c.1474-8)

Scholars often recognize the elements of a painting that are important to its underlying meaning even when they themselves continue to look at art like a photograph. That perception, the idea that painting mimics sight, has a long tradition. Patrons, art theorists and ordinary spectators have looked at art that way for over 500 years; it is the view conventionally expressed in art scholarship; it was not the artist’s.

Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci has always been viewed as a portrait of the patron’s Platonic love or as an emblem of feminine virtue. The juniper bush behind her (ginepro in Italian) alludes to her name. Yet Mary Garrard was understandably disturbed that the actual details of the woman's life are missing from these interpretations and has importantly recognized that “every feature of the portrait can be explained by Ginevra’s own celebrity as a poet": from the honorific bust-length image to the laurel referring to poetry.1 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c.1474) Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

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Today Ginevra’s poetry is lost but in Leonardo's day her fame as a poet was widespread. Yet Garrard errs in thinking that the portrait represents the poet herself because Leonardo was not an illustrator. He would not have just copied Ginevra's face. The portrait represents instead the feminine side of Leonardo’s own poetic mind in the process of creation and the laurels and palm, even if she deserved them in life, are Leonardo’s here.

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Scholars assume that the portrait is a likeness even though Renaissance patrons often complained about the difficulty of getting a good likeness from a great master. Research on this site further demonstrates that many great portraits are a fusion of faces. One need only compare Ginevra’s to the Mona Lisa‘s (left) to recognize disturbing similarities between them. Consider, for instance, the overall proportions, the foreheads, noses and chins. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci (c.1474);
R: Detail of Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1503-7)

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Ginevra de’ Benci is not a portrait of a living woman despite the reference to a famous poet who may have looked a little like this. It is instead, on the level that the artist primarily intended, a representation of the poetic aspect of Leonardo himself in the process of creation. Understanding this is crucial to understanding art because if a Renaissance portrait were primarily the equivalent of a Renaissance photograph it would not be art.2 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c.1474)

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Furthermore, just as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment represents the act of creation in a poet’s mind and just as the protagonist in Giorgione’s Tempesta has been identified as a poet too, so the act of creation in Leonardo's poetic mind is the subject here.3 Giorgione’s and Michelangelo’s scenes are clearly not photographic in nature; nor, despite appearances, is Leonardo’s.  

Captions for image(s) above:

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c.1474)

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Notes:

1. “Leonardo da Vinci and Creative Female Nature” in Peggy Zeglin Brand and Carolyn Korsmeyer (eds.) Feminism and Tradition in Aesthetics (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1995, p. 327

2. Larry Feinberg has shown how Leonardo had a predilection for double-meaning in visual puns, a process similar to the type of double-meaning revealed here. Feinberg, “Visual Puns and Variable Perception: Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder”, Apollo 510, 2004, pp. 38-41

3. Rudolf Schier, “Giorgione’s Tempesta: a Virgilian pastoral”, Renaissance Studies 22, Sept. 2008, pp. 476-506

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 20 Apr 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.