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“Ginevra de’ Benci” by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci - Ginevra de' Benci - Google Art Project

Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci

Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci depicts a well-known young Florentine aristocrat. Leonardo painted the portrait in Florence in 1474 to commemorate Ginevra’s marriage at the age of 16. The juniper bush that fills much of the background was regarded as a symbol of female virtue, in Renaissance Italy, while the Italian word for juniper, echo’s Ginevra’s name. Ginevra is shown beautiful but reserved with no hint of a smile. Her gaze, although forward, seems indifferent to the viewer.

The reverse of the panel is decorated with a juniper sprig encircled by a wreath of laurel and palm and is memorialised by the phrase “beauty adorns virtue”. This motto symbolises Ginevra’s intellectual and moral virtue aligned with her physical beauty. The juniper, encircled by laurel and palm, suggests her name. The laurel and palm are in the personal emblem of, a Venetian ambassador to Florence, whose platonic relationship with Ginevra is revealed in poems exchanged between them. An infrared examination has revealed ambassador’s motto “Virtue and Honor” beneath Ginevra’s motto, making it most probable that the ambassador was somehow involved in the commission of this portrait.

Leonardo da Vinci - Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper with a Scroll inscribed Virtutem Forum Decorat (reverse) - Google Art Project

In addition to the Venetian ambassador to Florence, as a woman of renowned beauty, Ginevra de’ Benci was also the subject of poems written by other prominent members of Florence, including the Medici family and Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Platonic Love

Platonic love is a type of love or a close relationship that is non-sexual. It is named after the Greek philosopher Plato, though the philosopher never used the term himself. In the Middle Ages, there was a renewed interest in Plato, and although Plato’s discussions of love originally centered on relationships which were sexual between members of the same-sex, the meaning of platonic love transformed during the Renaissance, leading to the contemporary sense of nonsexual heterosexual love.

The English term is derived from the concept in Plato’s Symposium of the love of the idea of good which lies at the root of virtue and truth. For a brief period, Platonic love was a fashionable subject in some royal courts of Europe and platonic love was the theme of some of the courtly masques, though the fashion soon came under pressures of social and political change.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, scientist and an engineer who was already famous in his lifetime and is today considered a genius. Leonardo’s masterpiece had considerable influence during his lifetime and continued to influence and attract lovers of history and art in our life.

Did you know?

  • This is the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in a public museum in the Americas.
  • A sizable strip was removed at some stage in the past, from the bottom of this painting, presumably due to damage, and Ginevra’s arms and hands were lost.

Reflections

  • How did the Florentines of the Renaissance understand platonic love?
  • How did Leonardo da Vinci understand platonic love?
  • How do you understand platonic love?

Exploring Leonardo da Vinci

Ginevra de’ Benci

  • Title:           Ginevra de’ Benci
  • Artist:         Leonardo da Vinci
  • Created:      c. 1474–8
  • Periods:      High Renaissance
  • Media:        Oil paint on panel
  • Dimensions: 38.1 cm × 37 cm (15.0 in × 15 in)
  • Museum:    National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Leonardo da Vinci

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