Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna

The Benoir Madonna, on display at the Louvre exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Reuters

I recently read in the Washington Post that the famed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, kept at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, will not be crossing the Atlantic as part of the Louvre’s upcoming exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.

However, visitors to the Paris exhibition will be able to view an alternative version of the so-named Ginevra de’ Benci. The same woman sat for an earlier painting by Leonardo – the Madonna and Child with Flowers, otherwise known as the Benois Madonna. It has travelled to Paris from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, 1478, by Leonardo da Vinci,
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

In previous posts I presented evidence suggesting the woman identified in the portrait by art historians is not Ginevra de’ Benci but Fioretta Gorini, said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. It is Fioretta and her child Giulio who are portrayed in the Benois Madonna.

The painting is thought to have been started in October 1478. A note in Leonardo’s handwriting and kept in the Uffizi in Florence states (“… 1478 I started painting two Virgin Mary’s). One of these is considered to be the Benois Madonna and the date of October 1478 was around five months after Fioretta gave birth to her son. Another source states that Fioretta was likely to have been only 15 years old at the time Giulio was born. This would explain her notably youthful appearance in the painting.

Fioretta’s child Giulio was eventually taken into care by the family of one of his godparents, Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder). Although the boy was said to be the son of Giuliano de’ Medici, it wasn’t until he had reached the age of seven that Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s brother, brought him into the Medici family to raise him as one of his sons.

Seemingly, soon after her son’s birth, Fioretta gave up her child and entered a religious community. Although there are no written records to suggest this, there are paintings by Leonardo’s contemporaries, notably Sandro Botticelli, that point to Fioretta surrendering her son and joining a religious order. Leonardo also points to this outcome in his two paintings of Fioretta – the Ginevra de’ Benci portrait and the Benois Madonna.

One of the features in the Benois Madonna painting that tempts art historians to suggest the work is unfinished, as some of Leonardo’s other early paintings, is the large vacant window above the Infant’s head. It contains nothing but the sky – no trees, no buildings, no mountains, just the sky and not even any clouds.

Such is its size and prominence that in its fnished or even unfinished state, it is there to make a statement. It contrasts greatly with the room’s dark interior, hardly adding any light to the backdrop. Light from another source appears to fall on the two figures – or does it? Could this light simply be a statement to reflect Christ’s claim as being the “light of the world”?

The window is shaped as a diptych, generally understood as a painting for an altarpiece, made of two-hinged panels that can be opened and closed like a book. In this instance what we see is almost like a blank canvas, but then it can be said that God constantly paints a new canvas – a new sky – day and night.

The diptych can also be understood as the two tablets representing the law handed down from Heaven to Moses on Mount Sinai and written in stone, referred to as the Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments. So both Old and New Testaments (the Christ Child) are symbolised in the painting. As for the absence of any written list of heavenly commandments, Leonardo simply translates the list as an expression of the heavenly “light of God”.

When Moses was born the Pharaoh had decreed that all new-born boys of Hebrew mothers were to be drowned in the Nile. Likewise, Herod issued a similar command after the birth of Jesus, that all boys under the age of two were to be slaughtered. Following the assassination of Giuliano de Medici in Florence Cathedral and the attack on his brother Lorenzo, known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, much bloodletting took place in acts of revenge against the consiprators and anyone considered associates. They were dangerous times, and in the aftermath Pope Sixtus lV placed Florence under interdict and further attempts were made to oust the Medici’s from power. In this light it can be understood why Fioretta’s child was intially placed into the care and protection of the Sangallo family and not the Medici’s, and even why Fioretta, reputed to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and mother of his child, sought sanctuary and protection within the walls of a convent.

After Moses was born his mother kept him hidden for three months. When she could no longer hide him she placed the child inside a papyrus basket coated with bitumen and pitch and laid it among the reeds at the edge of the river Nile. When the Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river to bathe, one of her servant girls noticed the basket and brought it to Pharaoh’s daughter who recognised the infant as a child of one of the Hebrews. The servant girl was the sister of the child and offered to find a nurse among the Hebrew women. She found the child’s mother and Pharaoh’s daughter asked the woman to take the child and suckle it for her. When the child grew up the mother brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son, naming him Moses because, she said “I drew him out of the water”. (Exodus 2 : 1-10)

From this we can see parallels with Fioretta and her son Giulio. She kept him for a while before handing him over to the Sangallo family and then later to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence.

The Moses narrative is usually described as “The Finding of Moses in the Bullrushes”. In Fioretta’s case the parallel is “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple” – her conversion to faith, and choosing to enter religious life..

So apart from the diptych as a reference to the tablets given to Moses, what other features in the painting point to finding the Hebrew prophet? First there is Fioretta’s basket-weave hairstyle, not only a reference to the woven basket which Moses was placed in but also to the Vinci name, which means “to entwine”. The ‘entwinement’ continues into a large knot and then flows down along Fioretta’s shoulder. The ‘flow’ start to take shape behind her ear – poorly drawn and painted, according to some critics, and not by the hand of Leonardo. The shape represents an Egyptian sphinx, crouching and protecting the neck of Fioretta.

Detail from Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini depicted as the Benois Madonna.

The Egyptian sphinx is usually depicted as having the body of a lion and a man’s head. In this instance the feature shows two heads, that of a bull (found among the bullrushes), and of a human shown in the bull’s nose. The flow of hair represents the river Nile, on whose west bank Egypt’s Great Sphinx stands and guards the entrance to Giza.

The Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. Notice the similarity and roundness of the face of the sphinx in comparison to Fioretta. Notice also the lion profile extended at the side of the head above the shoulder. The pyramid also has a role in Leonardo’s portrait of “Ginevra de’ Benci” which depicts the shape of a pyramid on her rght shoulder.

The Greek version of the sphinx generally has the face of a woman and wings of an eagle. Leonardo has combined the two, Greek and Egyptian. The shoulder reference represents the wing; the flow of hair, the wind. The Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent and the Greek version as cruel and malicious. Both were recognised as temple and tomb guardians.

The Greek sphinx is associated with the legend of “Riddle of the Sphinx” where travellers were allowed passage only if they could answer a riddle posed by the sphinx. If they failed to give the correct answer, they were strangled. One of the riddles was: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters? The answer – day and night – lends itself to Leonardo’s presentation of light and darkness in the Benois Madonna painting. Notice also how close the head of Leonardo’s sphinx is to the woman’s ear. Leonardo, perhaps a riddle in himself, wrote riddles in his notebooks.

The large knot behind Fioretta’s ear represents the sphinx’s riddle – and is a reference to the Gordonian Knot associated with Alexander the Great. It impossible to untie or see how it was fastened until Alexander sliced it through with his sword. This is Leonardo’s clever way of pointing to the assassination of Giulio de Medici and the Pazzi family’s plot, with others, to overthrow the Medici family as rulers of Florence. In the attack Giuliano was stabbed several times and killed by having part of his head sliced. Lorenzo escaped death, receiving only a cut to his neck.

Symbols of mourning and distress at the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici. However, the feathered strands of hair next to the ear’s orifice, and the angel’s feathers framing the open-mouthed depiction of Leonardo, also serve to point to a childhood memory recorded by Da Vinci in one of his notebooks.

Fioretta’s ear, isn’t badly drawn or painted as some critics have assumed. It depicts a hooded mourner screaming in grief and anguish, possibly Fioretta herself on hearing the news of Giuliano’s murder. A similar motif appears on the terracotta bust of Giuliano made by Andrea del Verrocchio. The gorgon feature shown on the breastplate is a wailing angel with its mouth wide open. The model for the ‘guardian angel’ was Leonardo da Vinci. On the day he was assassinated, Giuliano had chosen not to wear his normal body armour under his clothes.

Leonardo has also included a second subtle ‘scream’ feature, that of Giuliano himself, made from the ‘feathered’ strands of hair hanging over Fioretta’s temple, and so pointing to Giuliano’s murder in the Temple.

These features confirm the painting was started sometime after Giuliano was killed on Aril 26, 1478, and also after the birth of Fioretta’s son a month later, supporting the the note made by Leonardo later that year that the Benois Madonna was likely to be one of the “two Marie’s” he had started to paint.

The Moses references in this painting, along with those of Giuliano de Medici, Fioretta and the sphinx are all mirrored in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli also included references from Leonardo’s unfinished version of the Adoration of the Magi and his version of Jerome in the Wilderness. The latter work is part of the current Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre.

More on Fioretta Gorini

Continued from previous posts: • Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the WordShe gave birth to a sonWhatever happend to Fioretta Gorini?

Detail from the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testimony and Death of Moses.

This detail is from a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testimony and Death of Moses. It shows Moses seated and preaching to a group of people, women and children on the left, men on the right. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant. It is strategically placed at the side of two of the women with a babe in arms, one standing the other seated on the ground. They represent the Madonna and Child, a repeated subject of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings.

Guardan angels… Giuliano de’ Medici in the forefront can be matched to his depiction in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. The second angel is likely to represent Botticelli.

There are two angels standing behind the seated Madonna. The angel in the forefront, wrapped in prayer beads, is modelled on Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in 1478, some three years before the fresco was completed. Giuliano is portrayed as a guardian angel, keeping watch over the seated Madonna and Child who are modelled on Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio. There are three versions of Fioretta. The second is the figure standing immediately behind the seated woman, also with a child in arms, and the third depiction is the head behind the head of the standing woman.

Let’s take a closer look at the last mentioned. She is closely matched to Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci – aka Fioretta Gorini (right). Her hair is tied with a simple scarf, without decoration. Her eyes are looking to the right. Someone has caught her attention. It is Leonardo (not in the frame), the artist who painted her portrait. The fierce-looking woman on Fioretta’s shoulder is her protectress, a Gorgon feature, with a reputation of turning anyone who looked at her into stone.

The stone refererence is a reminder of the marble sculpture Verrocchio made of Fioretta – Lady with a Bouquet – and his terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici that shows a Gorgon feature on the breastplate depicting Leonardo as an angel. Fioretta’s father was a cuirasser who made protective armour. The breastplates would likely feature a Gorgon symbol.

The Giuliano and Leonardo ‘double-head’ also links to the appearance of a ‘double-head’ on the Fioretta figure in the fresco. This in turn provides another connection to Fioretta’s identity and Leonardo – a drawing made by the artist that is now housed in the British Museum. It depicts the Virgin and Infant Christ holding a cat. The Virgin is portrayed with a ‘double-head’ and it is this feature that the fresco artist has adopted and coalesced with the head of Fioretta in Leonardo’s painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci.

This composition detail in Leonardo’s drawing is echoed in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Particularly interesting in the Leonardo sketch is the cat turning its head seeking to escape from the grip of the Infant Christ. The same ‘escape’ motif is replicated in the fresco. So who does the child represent wanting to escape from the woman? Leonardo’s drawing is © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This combination and reference to Leonardo’s drawing also reveals that the woman in the sketch is Fioretta Gorini. The sketch and, more notably, a similar drawing in reverse and on the recto side of the sheet were prelimany drawings for the painting attributed to Leonardo and known as the Benoir Madonna. More on this in a future post.

Leonardo’s two drawings of the Madonna and the Infant Christ holding a cat (British Museum) which were preliminary sketches for his painting, the Benoir Madonna, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The double-head feature in the fresco is meant to portray Fioretta at two stages in life, or two paths open to her. One that leads to death, the other to new life. She takes the path of transfiguration or religious conversion. Death, in the guise of the gorgon and representing her lover Giuliano de’ Medici, is at her side, after which she gives birth to her son.

Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo by Piero di Cosimo, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Over her gold-decorated dress she puts on a purple cloak of ‘mourning’ and repentance, turning her head to the ‘Joseph’ figure opposite who is gazing adoringly at Fioretta’s child. In this instance the man is portrayed as Giuliano da Sangallo, brother of Antonio, the man who took charge of Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life. Giuliano is depicted instead of Antonio to link to the name of Giuliano de’ Medici and identify Fioretta’s son who was named Giulio.

The third stage in the transformation of Fioretta’s life shows her seated on the ground (an act of humility), simply dressed and holding her child. Her blue and gold garments are matched in colour to those seen in the Benoir Madonna. Her blue cap with its gold wings is similar to the cap and colours seen on the Moses figure and also in the figure of his successor Joshua shown elsewhere in the painting. The blue cap and gold ‘wings’ represent an anointing by the Holy Spirit.

In my previous post I suggested that Fioretta had joined a religious community of Carmelites. I mentioned also her connection to the Sangallo family and that one of the attributes of Saint Gallo was a bear carrying a piece of wood. Another attribute of the saint is a hermit’s tau staff and in the Sistine Chapel fresco we see Giuliano Sangallo leaning on a such a staff. Its end is placed at the bare feet of Fioretta. This is another pointer to Fioretta’s hermitic life, her removal from the world and discalced status, and also a reference back to Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta that art historians have mistakenly identified as Ginervra de’ Benci.

Fioretta Gorini with her child Giulio, watched over by Giuliano de’ Medici portrayed as an angel, and (right) Giuliano da Sangallo.

Fioretta’s ‘three-in-one” transformation connects to the transfiguration of Moses who was seen in a new light by the people when he descended from Mount Sinai after conversing with God. The first figure in the line of men on the right of the fresco is Elijah who, along with Moses, featured in the transfiguration of Jesus when he ascended a mountain in the company of three of his disciples. His face shone like the sun and God the Father’s voice was heard to say: This is my beloved son, with who I am well pleased; listen to him,” repeating the same words he spoke when Jesus was baptised by John in the wilderness. (Mark 1:11, 9:7)

Historians record Giuliano de’ Medici as the father of Fioretta’s son. Following the assassination of Giulio, his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici was informed by Antonio da Sangallo of the child’s birth and that Giuliano was its father. But was he?

More on this in a future post.

Whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini?

continued from previous posts: • Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the WordShe gave birth to a son

So whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth to her child Giulio, said to have been the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici? For the first seven years of his life Giulio was raised by Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) and then brought up in the Medici household. His uncle Lorenzo de Medici became Giulio’s guardian.

Elijah at the shoulder of Fioretta Gorini

It wasn’t until 1513 that Fioretta’s name surfaced again when the newly elected Pope Leo X wanted to make his cousin Giulio a cardinal. Problem for the Church was that Giulio’s illegitimacy stood in the way. This was rectified when apparently Fioretta’s brother, supported by some monks, testified that his sister and Giuliano de’ Medici had married secretly. Giulio’s birth was legitimised and he was made Cardinal on September 23, 1513 when he was 35 years old. Ten years later he became Pope Clement Vll. His birth is given as May 26, 1478, exactly a month after Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination on April 26. If Giulio was aware that Giuliano and Fioretta had married, then why did it take a man in his influential position, or the Medici family, so long to pursue his legitimacy? Or was this claim of marriage simply one of convenience to clear the path for Giulio to join the ranks of the cardinalate?

That it was Fioretta’s brother who was said to have confirmed the marriage, and not his sister, would suggest she was no longer alive at the time. Neither has any record come to light as to when Fioretta died, but presumably it was prior to 1513.

Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder)

If Fioretta had been married to Giuliano then why would she not declare her marriage and her son to the Medici family? Why was it left to Antonio da Sangallo, the child’s godfaather, to inform Lorenezo de’ Medici of the birth and then to take the boy into his own house for the first seven years of his life? And was there a reason why Fioretta’s own family did not not take charge or support her child?

Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli provide clues in their paintings about Fioretta’s circumstances following Giuliano’s murder and the birth of her son. They both suggest that Fioretta entered cloistered life, which may explain why she was not on hand to raise her child. Leonardo points to the Carmelite Order while Botticelli implies she may even have an become an anchorite, walled into her cell. Was her exile from the world self-imposed, perhaps the result of a religious conversion of epiphany experience, or was pressure applied on Fioretta to ‘disappear’ in this way?

Testament and Death of Moses, Sistine Chapel, Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta.

There are two other paintings that point to Fioretta’s circumstances before and after Giuliano’s death. Of its time, around 1481, is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. The other painting is titled Parnassus and was produced by Andrea Mantegna twenty years after the assassination of Giulio de Medici. It is now housed in the Louvre, Paris. Mantegna’s painting combines the references to Fioretta in Leonardo’s portrait known as Ginevra de’ Benci (NGA, Washington) and also those in Botticelli’s Madonna with Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (Barber Institute, Birmingham). The reference to Fioretta in the Sistine Chapel fresco points to her ‘new life’ or ‘transfiguration’.

Parnassus, Andrea Mantegna, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Leonardo’s Carmelite reference is the bearded head of the prophet Elijah placed among the juniper and above Fioretta’s right shoulder. Carmelites follow an ideal of life as witnessed and experienced by Elijah. Already mentioned in a previous post is the juniper was the tree that Elijah sat under in the wilderness, when he wished he was dead and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).

Detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci (?) aka Fioretta Gorini, NGA, Washington DC

The water feature at Fioretta’s left shoulder represents ‘Elisha’s Spring’. Elisha was the ‘adopted’ son of Elijah. At the time the prophet was taken up into heaven, Elisha requested and received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Soon afterward Elisha performed his first miracle by purifying Jericho’s water supply which was considered the cause of many miscarriages. The ‘adopted son of Elijah’ can be understood as Fioretta’s son Giulio being first ‘adopted’ by his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), a notable Florentine woodworker (and later an architect), and so another identity Leonardo has applied to the ‘head’ in the trees – placed at the shoulder in support of Fioretta, as he would have been when the child was baptised. It was near to Jericho that John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. Notice also the young, golden tree that rises from the waterside and merges with the juniper – symbolic of a tree of life and the safe delivery of Fioretta’s son Giulio.

Further confirmation that the shape above the Fioretta’s right shoulder is a pointer to Antonio da Sangallo is the the name Sangallo, Italian for Saint Gaul. One of the saint’s artistic attributes is a bear bringing him piece of wood, as seen below in the right hand image. The image on the left represents an ‘upright’ bear carrying a forked branch. Leonardo points to this using a triangular ‘pyramid’ – symbolic of Giuliano’s recent death. The branch is shaped as the letter Y or the Greek upsilon. Its symbolism did not go unnoticed by Pythagorus and the Roman writer Persius commented: “…the letter which spreads out into Pythagorean branches has pointed out to you the steep path which rises on the right.” Isidore of Seville later wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.” Leonardo has depicted Fioretta as taking the narrow, arduous path.

Left: Leonardo’s San Gallo bear representing Antonio da Sangallo.
Right: A mural in a German church of Saint Gaul with a bear carrying wood.

The scapular, though black and not brown, is symbolic of the one presented by the Virgin Mary in the 13th century to Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelite Order, with the promise of salvation for those who wear it. The scapular formed part of the brown habit worn by Carmelites and also became a symbol of consecration to Our Lady of Carmel. That Fioretta’s scapular is black and not brown is because she is in mourning for Giuliano de’ Medici.

There is one more reference in Leonardo’s painting that links to Elijah and the ‘new life’ of Fioretta after Giuliano de’ Medici was slaughtered and stabbed 19 times by assassins during Mass in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria Fiore. It relates to the time Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a fire for their animal sacrifice (1 Kings 18:20-40). Despite their prayers, their chants and dancing around the altar, the wood on which the bull was laid did not catch fire. Even when the priests gashed themselves with swords and knives, as was their custom, and the blood flowed down them, their god remained silent and the fire unlit. The bloodletting and slaughter is the reference Leonardo has used to link his painting to the slaughter and stabbings in the Duomo.

Lady with a Bouquet, Andrea del Verrocchio,
said to be modelled on Ginevra Gorini.

Then Elijah prepared another altar and “took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yaweh had come.” The reference to stone and the word of the Lord is Leonardo’s pointer to the stone appearance of Fioretta and Verrocchio’s marble sculpture which he may have used to base his portrait on, while “to whom the word of Yaweh had come” is applied to Fioretta’s religious conversion and decision to join the Carmelite Order.

Elijah doused his sacrifice in water (mixed with the blood of the bull) and then called on God to win back the hearts of the people. “Then the fire of Yaweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When the people saw this they fell on their faces. ‘Yaweh is God’ they cried ‘Yaweh is God’.” (1 Kings 18:38-39). It was at this moment during the Mass in the Duomo, following the Eucharistic prayer offered by the priest, and when the consecrated Host was raised and heads bowed, that was the signal for the attack on the Medici brothers.

My next post deals with the reference to Fioretta as she appears in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes… More on Fioretta Gorini

She gave birth to a son

continued from previous posts:
Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the Word

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 Fioretti 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.

Ginevra de’ Benci (?) by Leonardo da Vinci, Natonal Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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?)

Two of a kind… (left) Lady with a Bouquet, Andrea del Verrocchio, Bargello Museum, Florence.
(right) detail from Leonardo’s unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Gallery.

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.

The emblem on the reverse of the painting by Leonardo da Vinci, supposedly of Ginevra de’ Benci

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.

A medieval cuirass

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.

Elijah amidst the juniper, protecting and keeping watch over Fioretta Gorini.

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.

Andrea del Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici with a depiction of Leonardo da Vinci on the breastplate of the cuirass. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

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?

Leonardo, preacher and prophet

continued from previous post: In the beginning was the Word

In my previous post I mentioned that the Infant Baptist figure in the Botticelli painting displayed in the Barber Institute is also a representation of Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli refers to Leonardo in this guise in several of his paintings. He was not the first to do so. The connection stems from the Baptism of Christ painting attributed to Andrea Verocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in as well, painting one on the angels (himself). The other angel gazing in admiration is Sandro Botticelli. The Christ figure is Verocchio who has portrayed Leonardo as John the Baptist.

Matching Botticelli’s Baptist figure with Verocchio’s version, both depicting Leonardo da Vinci.

Notice the the similarity in the Baptist’s stance, the placement of feet and the raised right arm above the head of Christ, compared with the infant Baptist in the Botticelli painting. It’s tempting to say that the Christ child could even be Botticelli – but it’s not. Compare also the similar placing of the Madonna’s feet with those of the baptised Christ, and with Leonardo’s under-drawing of the Virgin’s ‘pointy’ toes in his abandoned painting of the Adoration of the Magi.

Left and right: The Madonna and Christ…feet set apart… Christ’s feet stand in water mingled with the blood of the Holy Innocents slaughtered under Herod’s orders, while the Madonna steps out from beneath the hem of her blood-coloured gown. Centre: the ‘pointy’ toes of Leonardo’s Madonna in his unfinished version of the Adoration of the Magi.

Another pointer to Leonardo is the shape of the red cloak draped over the Baptist’s clothes made of camel hair. This relates to Leonardo’s first memory as a child in his cradle. In later years, while making notes about the flight pattern of birds and the fork-tailed red kite (milvus vulgaris), he wrote: “Writing like this so particularly about the kite seems to be my destiny, since the first memory of my childhood is that it seemed to me, when I was in my cradle, that a kite came to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.” Although the notebook entry is thought to be have been made around 1505, it is possible that the incident was related orally to others at earlier stages in Leonardo’s life.

The fork-tailed red cape also relates to another type of kite – one that Leonardo constructed in his quest to fly. Although there is no written evidence that Leonardo ever did get off the ground in this way, Botticelli included a similar reference in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. In making the attempt Leonardo may have possibly sustained a permanent injury to his right shoulder. This could explain his preference for writing and painting with his left hand, despite recent claims by researchers that he was ambidextrous.

The caped and winged Leonardo, poised to take off and depart for Milan…
Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

My next post will deal with some of the features from Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci which Botticelli has cleverly adapted to conceptualise his painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist.

In the beginning was the Word

Some years ago there was a UK vehicle manufacturer that traded under the name of LDV (Leyland DAF Vans). The company was based in Birmingham and for a brief time sponsored Aston Villa, one of the local football clubs. The team’s shirts were emblazoned with the LDV logo and the sponsorship ran for a couple of seasons, from 1998 to 2000.

Aston Villa striker Julian Joachim wearing the LDV sponsored shirt. Photo © Empics

Last weekend I came across another logo made up from the letters L, D, and V. It has a strong and long connection with Birmingham, as far back as 1943, although the logo itself is considerably older and was designed over 600 years ago by the polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

A logo or signature represents a mark of identity or attribution. It is used to authenticate and to indicate ownership, a sign of endorsement or sealing, a symbol of recognition.

Leonardo da Vinci signed his name in various ways, sometimes abbreviating it to three intials and merging them to create monograms as shown below.

Variations of Leonardo da Vinci’s monogram from his notebooks

A variation of Leonardo’s monogram or logo appears in a painting housed in the Green Gallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts located on the campus of the University of Birmingham. The painting is by the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli – a contemporary of Leonardo – and titled: The Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. There is a copy or another version of this work housed at the Galleria Palatina in Florence with some variations, notably the mirrored figures.

Left: Botticelli’s The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist, Barber Institute.
Right: A mirror version attributed to Botticelli and titled: Madonna and Child and the Young St John the Baptist, Galleria Palatine, Florence

The logo is not the only Leonardo reference in the painting. There are others. The child Baptist figure is a depiction of Leonardo. The Madonna references two of Leonardo’s works: The Adoration of the Magi and the painting titled Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci – a misnomer as the woman is Fioretta Gorini, said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici and mother of his son given the name Giulio. He later became Pope Clement Vll.

So what about the monogram or ‘logos’? It’s formed by the rather contrived scarf or symbolic knotwork of the Madonna’s headcover. In the Barber version it reads left to right. However, the Palatina version the letters are mirrored, acknowledging Leonardo’s tendency for mirror-writing predominant in his notebooks.

Detail of the Leonardo monogram or logo that Botticelli has embedded in his painting.

I mentioned earlier that a monogram or ‘logos’ as a type of seal or endorsement. Notice the Baptist’s right thumb playing or pressing on the lobe of the Christ child’s ear – a play on the greek words lobos (lobe) and logos (word, speech). It is not unknown for Leonardo to have left a thumb or finger print (a unique identifier) when picking up his work, as shown in the drawing below. This is echoed by the Madonna’s left hand lifting her mantle.

Leonardo’s thumbprint from a drawing titled: The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Both hands of the Madonna also echo those of the same figure drawn by Leonardo for his painting of the Adoration of the Magi. The so-called ‘pointy toes’ that are a prominent feature of the Madonna in the Adoration painting are also replicated by Botticelli on his Madonna.

Matching hands… left, the Madonna’s hands as seen in Leonardo’s unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi, Florence), and right, a similar composition of hands in Botticelli’s painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist.

But why would Botticelli want to drape Leonardo’s monogram around the Madonna’s neck and shoulders. Was he implying that there was some kind of attachment by Leonardo to the Virgin – or even the model Fioretta Gorini? For sure there is the primary overlay of religious meaning to the painting but could there also be an underlyng and a more secular narrative that Botticelli has embedded in the work? It was not unknown for Botticelli, for whatever reason, to target and refer to Leonardo in many of his paintings.

continued in next post: Leonardo, preacher and prophet

Offshoots of the Little Flower

A couple of months ago I posted on the early Leonardo da Vinci painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci and mentioned that some historians identify the woman instead as Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici and mother of his son Giulio who later became Pope Clement VII.

Little is known about Fioretta. Her real name was Antonia and she was the daughter of Antonio Gorini, a curaisser who lived on the Borgo Pinti in Florence. Fioretta supposedly gave birth to her son on May 26, 1478, just a month after the assassination of the child’s father on April 26, although it is also claimed that the boy named Giulio was born a year earlier. Nothing else is known about the mother except speculation that she conceived her child when she was fourteen years old and that Fioretta may have died soon after giving birth.

The Virin Mary, aka Fioretta Gorini, in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi.

However, there are paintings other than the one produced by Leonardo that possibly feature Fioretta and hint that she entered convent life soon after the death of Giuliano de’ Medici. It is known that the child was placed into the care of his godfather Antonio da Sangallo until the age of seven before his adoption by the Medici family.

The only woman featured among the thirty or so men in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi is the Virgin Mary, but what Botticelli is really trying to tell the world is that the woman portrayed as Mary is in fact Fioretta Gorini. More on this at another time.

Meanwhile, other images of Fioretta featured in the composite above are: (A) Leonardo’s portrait known as Ginevra de’ Benci – National Gallery of Art, Washington. (B) The woman portrayed as Ignorance in Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles – Uffizi, Florence. (C) Another painting by Botticelli: The Virgin Adoring the Child. National Gallery of Art, Washington. (D) The Banquet in the Forest by Botticelli – Prado, Madrid. (E) Testament and Death of Moses, by Luca Signorelli or Bartolomeo della Gatta – Sistine Chapel. (F) Mariage of Nastagio degli Onesti by Botticelli – Palazzo Pucci, Florence.

Leonardo’s stone-cold portrait

BBC presenter Fiona Bruce with a copy of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. © BBC

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?”

Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci painted by Leonardo da Vinci 1474 and 1478.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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…”

Lady with a Bouquet, marble bust by Andrea del Verrocchio, 1475-80, Bargello Museum

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.