Friday, June 21, 2013

H.B. Fieldtrip #3-Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de' Benci (National Gallery of Art)

This May, we brought our students to the National Gallery of Art to see Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de' Benci; his only painting on display in the Americas. Though just as captivating as the Mona Lisa, scholars understand more about Ginevra than Leonardo’s most legendary subject. Born around 1457 or 1458, she was a member of the prosperous and cultured Benci family of Florence, Italy. Ginevra herself was a celebrated poet, though none of her work survives.

Leonardo painted Ginevra’s likeness in 1474, perhaps to commemorate her marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini; she was 16 years old, and Leonardo just 22! The front of the portrait shows her seated before a juniper (ginepro in Italian), supposedly a pun on her name. On the reverse (it’s double-sided!) is a second juniper twig encircled by a garland of laurel and palm and the Latin inscription VIRTVTEM FORMA DECORAT (Beauty Adorns Virtue). Watch the YouTube video below for some commentary on the symbols’ possible connotations and unlikely “scandal” regarding them.

It’s a gorgeous piece of art (and you can actually see Leonardo’s fingerprint in the branches) celebrating a fascinating woman. Check it out if you're in DC!

Check out for a close-up of Leonardo’s fingerprint.

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