Ginevra de’ Benci (1473-1536) was the wife of Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. We believe she sat for a portrait by Leonardo in 1474. It is very likely that the portrait was undertaken at the time of her wedding to Niccolini at age 16.
Although this is a very early portrait by Leonardo (and the only Leonardo painting currently in the United States—the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.), it already gives us an idea of the secret symbols that Leonardo liked to hide in his paintings.
This was in keeping with the growing role of art in the Renaissance as a form of visual poetry—an allegorical conversation piece, in other words. It reflects the urgent desire of many Renaissance artists to be recognized as creative masters and visionary poets, rather than mere artisans. Many Renaissance paintings are really intellectual puzzles that invite the beholder to demonstrate his humanistic pedigree and cultural sophistication.
As we will see, the hands play a key role in unraveling these symbols. But, unfortunately, the portrait no longer has any.
That the hands were once present is clearly indicated by the awkward framing of the portrait—the wide space above her head is in contrast to the narrow framing of her bodice and shoulders below. In other words, the lower part of the painting must have been cut off at some point. This is also evident on the reverse side of the panel, which contains an emblem in the form of a garland; its bottom section is missing. This was a not-uncommon practice, since over the years paintings often changed hands and, when they did, were sometimes cut to fit a new frame or decoration scheme.
Fortunately, we can restore the painting digitally, by adding Leonardo’s study of a woman’s hands, now in the Windsor collection. This beautiful drawing of hands, executed in metalpoint over charcoal with white highlights on buff paper, shows two positions: one with the hands in repose on one another, anticipating the composition of the Mona Lisa; and one with the right hand above the other, holding what appears to be a twig or flower. We chose the latter, to create the reconstruction you see below. The effect is astonishing: with the addition of the hands, the rather dour portrait truly comes alive.
Rather than betraying the lady’s identity outright, Leonardo gives us subtle clues. One is the monumental tree in the background, which surrounds Ginevra’s head like a halo. Close inspection reveals it to be a juniper tree, ginepro in Italian, and thus a close approximation of her given name. This association is also revealed in the position of the hands (assuming, of course, that our montage is correct), since her right hand probably held a sprig from that same juniper tree.
Another important clue is the emblem on the reverse of the painting, which features a scroll with the words VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT (“beauty adorns virtue”) wrapped around a juniper and laurel branch. As it happened, the laurel and palm were prominently featured in the emblem of Bernardo Bembo, Venetian ambassador to Florence. This may provide another interesting spin to the portrait, since Bembo was deeply in love with the beautiful Ginevra, as we know from several of his poems. What’s more, recent infrared scans have revealed Bembo’s motto, “Virtue and Honor,” beneath that of Ginevra.