The portrait below is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and said to have been painted sometime between 1474 and 1478. Art historians consider the sitter to be Ginevra de’ Benci, the daughter of a Florentine banker and admired for her intellect and beauty. However, there is evidence to suggest the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, mother to the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral on April 26, 1478. As to when Fioretta gave birth to her child, there are two versions: he was born a month after his father’s death, or a year before Giuliano was killed.
The black scapular worn by Fioretta – a symbol of mourning – would suggest the painting was completed after Giuliano’s assassination. Neither is she wearing any jewellery. This is the same woman portrayed by Botticelli in his painting The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist; the same woman Leonardo depicted as the Mother of Jesus in his unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi; the same woman sculpted in marble by Leonardo’s master Andrea del Verrocchio – Lady with a Bouquet. (Could it be that Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta was based on Verrocchio’s sculpture and not from life?)
Some time after completion, for whatever reason, the Leonardo painting of Fioretta / Ginevra was shortened at its base, and if the painting was copied from Verrocchio’s sculpture then the arms, hands and bouquet disappeared with the reduction in size.
The painting is now housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The gallery’s website explains that “The reverse side of Ginevra de’ Benci depicts a wreath of laurel and palm encircling a sprig of juniper with a scroll bearing the Latin motto “Beauty Adorns Virtue.” Infrared reflectography revealed beneath the surface another motto – “Virtue and honor” – that of Bernardo Bembo.”
It is this link to Bembo, together with the painting’s juniper tree backdrop, which art historians present as main evidence for the woman being Ginevra de’ Benci. However, there is another interpretation that can be applied to these two features and one which Botticelli has incorporated within his painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist, the version housed at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.
Let’s start with the motif that appears on the reverse side of the NGA painting Ginevra de’ Benci. It’s incomplete because of the reduction made to the size of the panel, but there is enough of the emblem remaining to be able to make a judgement. The branches are laurel, palm and juniper. The laurel and palm entwine to encircle the smaller juniper branch. The emblem as a whole symbolizes protection. The two Medici brothers Lorenzo (laurel) and the assassinated Giuliano (martyr’s palm) are the covering branches, while the juniper represents the woman in the portrait, Fioretta Gorini, presumed to have been the mistress of Giuliano and mother of his son Giulio.
Very little is known about Fioretta. Possibly a courtesan, she was the daughter of Antonio Gorini, a cuirass maker. A cuirass is a piece of armour consisting of breastplate and backplate fastened together, and it is this protective reference that Leonardo has taken for his motif on the back of the portrait painting, fastening together two sections or two branches to protect the juniper sprig. The sprig is also a metaphor for the child in Fioretta’s womb. As to the original motto Virtus et Honor (Virtue and Honour), the laurel and the palm represent virtue while the juniper represents honour.
The juniper tree as a symbol of protection also has a biblical connection. It was the fearful Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, who sheltered under a juniper (furze) bush in the wilderness, wishing he was dead. After falling asleep he was woken by an angel who then ministered to him. There is also the legend of the Holy Family fleeing with their donkey from the wrath of Herod seeking to slaughter all the new-born boys. The family and the donkey hid under the boughs of a large juniper tree, completely out of sight of the soldiers in pursuit.
So if the woman is not Ginevra de’ Benci then why would Leonardo want to place Fioretta under the protection of a prominent juniper tree? The connection goes back to Elijah and the time an angel of God came to minister and encourage him to continue his journey to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:1-8). The “thin space”, the gap between the juniper trees above Fioretta’s right shoulder represents the head of Elijah, the prophet who was to return to earth before the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Jesus claimed went unrecognised in the guise of John the Baptist (Matt 11:14), the prophet Botticelli sometimes portrays in his paintings as Leonardo da Vinci. Juniper was also used as a deterrent against evil and hung over doorways. However, its berries signified honour or the birth of a boy.
Very little is known about Fioretta as the daughter of a cuirass maker. There is no doubt she gave birth to a child. The boy was taken care of for the first seven years of his life in the house of his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), and then afterwards Lorenzo de’ Medici became his guardian.
The mention of Fioretta being the daughter of a manufacturer of armour also links Leonardo and Giuliano de’ Medici to the terracotta bust made by Andrea del Verrocchio. Whie the bust is of Giuliano, the ‘gorgon’ feature on the breastplate is of a screaming, winged Leonardo da Vinci, and perhaps a reference to his attempt at flight, or even as a protector or guardian angel.
So where was Fioretta, the child’s mother, in all of this? There is no record of her raising the boy. Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta provides some clues, Botticelli’s painting even more. I shall present these in my next post: Whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini?