I watched a BBC documentary yesterday – Da Vinci: The Lost Treasure. It was presented by Fiona Bruce. A brief section of the programme focused on the painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci, an early portrait painted by Leonardo between 1474 and 1478.
Commenting on the painting kept in Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Bruce said: “I must say, I don’t warm to this young lady. She looks decidedly frosty. So why was she so admired?”
Luke Syson, a curator working at the time for London’s National Gallery, responded: “The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is curiously unlovable. She really stares at us with a quite chilly, menacing gaze. I think what Leonardo was trying to do was to make her very remotely beautiful, was to raise her beauty above a kind of ordinary human level to something that was poetic and almost other-worldly.”
Then Syson, who has since become a director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, added a very interesting observation: “I think she comes over as if she is carved from marble, rather than like a living, breathing human being…”
It has long been thought that Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci is the same woman portrayed in Andrea del Verrocchio’s marble bust, known as the Lady with a Bouquet, now housed in Florence’s Bargello Museum. What may not have been considered is that Leonardo’s painting is based on Verrocchio’s sculpture “carved from marble, rather than a living, breathing human being.”
There is also another version of of the marble bust, except that it is made of plaster with a stucco surface. Known as The Lady with the Primroses, it is attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop and displayed at the Met Museum in Washington. There is also a marble bust attributed to Leonardo in The Frick Collection museum located in Manhattan. This is also said to resemble the sitter in the Ginevra de’ Benci painting.
But is the portrait really that of Ginevra de’ Benci? Some historians have suggested that the woman is Fioretta Gorini, mistress of Giuliiano de’ Medici and mother of his son Giulio who later became Pope Clement VII.
My preference is for Fioretta (meaning ‘little flower’), and I’ll explain why in a future post.