The Secrets Behind Leonardo da Vinci’s First Female Portrait

Exploring the story behind “Ginevra de’ Benci”

Christopher P Jones


Christopher P Jones is the author of Great Paintings That Tell Stories, exploring the narrative details in famous paintings.

Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474–1478) by Leonardo da Vinci. Tempera on panel. 38 × 37 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

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…