The Secrets Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s First Female Portrait
Christopher P Jones is the author of Great Paintings That Tell Stories, exploring the narrative details in famous paintings.
Let’s consider the evidence… The fingerprint, the ambiguous expression, the juniper bush, and the mysterious emblem on the back of the painting.
At first glance, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting appears to be a straightforward portrait of a young Florentine noblewoman, commonly believed to be Ginevra de’ Benci. It was Leonardo’s first portrait of a woman and one of the earliest known three-quarter-view portraits in Italian art. It is also the only Leonardo painting held in the United States.
Yet on closer inspection, its finer details reveal a more intricate story, one that exposes the surprising social customs of Renaissance Italy, when the attentions of young women were shared by both romantic and platonic suitors.
So what’s the meaning of the work, who commissioned it and what motivated them? And how does the artist Leonardo da Vinci fit into the story?
A Young Woman of Florence
Ginevra de’ Benci was born into a wealthy Florentine family. She lived just a few minutes walk from the Ponte Vecchio, the medieval stone bridge that crosses the River Arno in Florence.
Ginevra is thought to have been just 16 years old at the time the painting was made. She was considered to be a great beauty of the city bestowed with multiple virtues, making her a magnet for admirers — as well as their effusive sonnets.
Leonardo da Vinci was also a resident of the city at this time. He was about 21 years old when he was called upon to make this painting, sometime around 1474. At the time he was residing in the workshop of his teacher, Verrocchio.
Leonardo’s painted description of the Ginevra is exceptionally nuanced and sensitive. Her porcelain complexion — fashionable among noblewomen at the time — is lit by a crisp natural light that…