Leonardo Comes to America

An icon of the Renaissance, Leonardo worked in many parts of Italy and died in France, and had so many inclinations and varied accomplishments that if one refers today to someone broadly literate, curious, and accomplished as a “Renaissance man” one may likely have the man from the town of Vinci in mind. Be that as it may, Americans could experience the work of the man who graced Europe from 1452 to 1519 only in books or from trips across the Atlantic – that is, until 1967. That year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington bought the Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474) for a record sum of over a million dollars from the Liechtenstein Collection in Vienna. It acquired a gem, full of interest.
First, the museum bought only part of a masterpiece for this princely sum. Leonardo routinely left works unfinished of course, such as the St Jerome and The Adoration of the Magi, due to the pressure of other commissions or difficult patron-artist relationships. But this portrait, now a somewhat odd 15″ x 15 ” square, was missing a strip of almost 9 inches from its lower half, perhaps from fire damage. We know from Leonardo’s preparatory study that the portrait ought to contain hands, one holding a flower. And on the back of the panel is drawn a branch of juniper surrounded by a garland of palm and laurel with a Latin inscription “Beauty Adorns Virtue.” The bottom of the garland is missing; completing it gives us an idea of the portrait’s intended non-square proportions of 3 by 4.
Most scholars agree that the Ginevra was, as most Renaissance portraits conventionally were, to commemorate a betrothal or even a wedding. But Leonardo was doing something original on top of something conventional. Maybe due to the urging of his atelier master, Verrocchio, but the 3/4 pose of the Ginevra was rare in Italian portraiture in 1474, and painting hands at all was terribly unusual since portraits were in bust form only.
To boot, this work was one of the young Leonardo’s first attempts at the new flexible medium of oil painting that emerged to challenge the rather intractable tempera material of so much art just before Leonardo’s birth. Oil was replacing tempera and fresco, and contributes to what we see in the Ginevra. The landscape seems in every detail to be part of the portrait which is not a woman viewed in front of a neutral background of trees and mountains at all.  No. The subject here secretes and develops around her her own atmosphere, full of unspoken meanings and mystery, except for the spiky leaves of the dark juniper bush that Leonardo includes as a gentle pun since Ginevra means juniper in Italian. Figure and landscape merge into each other through shadow play.

Leonardo Portrait, Francesco Melzi, c. 1516

In 15th century Italy, no doubt with the demands of fresco and tempera techniques, painters conceived the elements of a picture separately, each surrounded by an outline that made them stand out against a background. Leonardo is experimenting with layering and transitions newly made possible with oils. In 1950, Andre Malraux wrote in La Psychologie de l’art that Leonardo created “a kind of space that had never been seen in Europe before, one that not merely was a location for the figures but drew characters and spectators together, as time does, into immensity.”  Whatever mystery this sentiment evokes, Leonardo was beginning here to approach the so-called sfumato effect – a merging, melting of shades into smoke – that would appear 30 years later in the Mona Lisa.
The Ginevra remains the only picture by Leonardo in the United States. Unlike the Summer of Love that has, for the most part, faded from view – if not quite memory – the National Gallery’s bold move in 1967 can enrich all visitors to the nation’s capital to this day.

Serge Bramly, Leonardo: The Artist and the Man, trans., Sian Reynolds (New York, 1991).
David Alan Brown, Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (Princeton, 2003).
Kurt Herberts, The Complete Book of Artists’ Techniques (New York, 1958).



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