The portrait of Ginevra de'Benci that hangs in the National Gallery of Art is one of only three portraits of women painted by the Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. It is the earliest of the three and was painted when the artist was still a young man studying in the studio of Verrocchio. The other two portraits were painted at fifteen year intervals and illustrate the artist's technical development over time.
The second portrait, Lady with an Ermine, is of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludivico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, with whom da Vinci was trying to curry favor. The third is, of course, the famed Mona Lisa, a portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. All three portraits are cited by art critics and historians as examples of what they like to call psychological portraiture, paintings which go beyond the surface of the subject and get at the inner workings of their consciousness, the sub-text. Indeed, according to one critic, the Ginevra portrait, since it is the earliest, and since da Vinci is the first to do it, may well be the first example of this kind of psychological infusion.
The history of this remarkable painting and its eventual trip to its current home in the National Gallery of Art is the subject of a documentary newly released on DVD. It is a two-sided disc, one side in English narrated by Meryl Streep, the other in Italian, narrated by Isabella Rossellini. It begins by providing some information about the sixteen-year-old subject of the painting, and tries to explain how the young novice painter was awarded the commission. It explains how the painting was authenticated as a da Vinci, before it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1967 from the Prince of Liechtenstein for five million dollars, a record for that time. The description of the secrecy involved in the bidding for the painting and then getting it shipped to the United States is the stuff of spy fiction, complete with secret codes, special valises, and FBI agents.
There are also excellent explanations of the processes involved in the 1991 restoration of the painting, as well as a quite remarkable discussion of the attempt to produce a possible reconstruction of a missing portion of the bottom of the panel on which the portrait is painted. Computer artists used a da Vinci drawing of hands housed at Windsor Castle to complete the portrait, on the theory that the drawing may well have been a sketch meant for use in the painting as well as the critical judgment that hands were a very important expressive element in the artist's other work. There is also some interesting newsreel footage of the painting's arrival in the country and well as of the opening of its exhibit on St. Patrick's Day and the later visit of the Mona Lisa to the States.
While the film concentrates on the three portraits of women, especially that of Ginevra, there is also some attempt to provide insight into the artist's other work. There is some discussion of The Annunciation, an early painting just before the portrait of Ginevra, and The Last Supper. Da Vinci's mechanical and scientific pursuits are also discussed and his technical drawings illustrated.
Of course, the film's central aim is to explain what it is that accounts for the portrait's greatness, and unfortunately, as with many discussions of art, the explanations are couched in the kind of impressionistic language which leaves the viewer with little in the way of solid criteria. What we have here objectively is a picture of a very pale young lady who may be sad or perhaps pensive set against a background of a juniper bush painted on one side of a small wood panel. On the back of the panel, an emblem made up of wreath of laurel and palm framing another juniper plant with a Latin motto scrolled over it. The motto can be translated "beauty adorns virtue," which is the emblem of Ginevra's family. The juniper bush is a visual pun on the Italian word for the plant which echoes the young subject's name.
The one attempt to define the painting's greatness that resonates with some semblance of authority comes from art historian, Martin Kemp of Oxford University. Kemp asserts that in each of the three portraits da Vinci manages to create not only an individual, but an archetypal figure as well, a figure that compares with the greatest characters created by Shakespeare, for example. One might argue that this may well be true for the Mona Lisa, whether it as clearly applies to Ginevra is perhaps open to question.
Whether or not its greatness can be adequately explained analytically, however, is in some sense beside the point. For many the name da Vinci is signification enough of greatness. One of the talking heads in the film asserts that to the ordinary citizen on the strand there are three great names in painting—Van Gogh, Picasso, and da Vinci. Now while, one may quarrel with this list, there is no argument that they are all legitimate candidates for and top three list, and the painter of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper is probably the likeliest for the top spot. One has to wonder, however, if the Ginevra portrait has necessarily helped to put him there.