The Lichtenstein Lady
It is also known as the Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and it is seen by most art critics as the first portrait created by a 22 years old Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).
The influence of Flemish painters like Jan Van Eyck (c.1390-1441), Hans Memling (1435-1494) and Petrus Christus (1410-1472/73) is extremely strong. This portrait is a haunting, gloomy picture, possessing a magnetic spell similar to that exerted by the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum. Once you stare into her sad face, you will never be able to forget her: she will remain carved into your subconscious. It is kept under bulletproof glass with armed guards keeping a close watch on it. According to Andrè Suarès (1) this picture lack the ‘the tears and music of love’ and she is similar to an algebraic equation, according to Serge Bramly(2). It is a small picture on a Lombardy’s white poplar wood panel, like the Mona Lisa, having the size of 39 x 37 cm but the lower part of it, as well as the right side, was sawn away by at least 8 inches, and looking at the reverse of the painting we can see the mutilation in the wreath. Up to the year 1866 this picture was assigned to Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and only after that it was correctly attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci by Art Historian Gustav Waagen(3).
At close examination the slit of Ginevra’s bodice had been overpainted. Probably she was keeping her hands close to her breast or perhaps the top of some flowers were ending there. There is a sketch of hands made by Leonardo in the Windsor Collection which could fit it but that is just guess.
This attribution has been confirmed recently by forensic scientists who had found Leonardo Da Vinci’s fingerprints on it for we know that Leonardo used his fingers to smooth details of his paintings and his fingers were used for the face of Ginevra and for the juniper leaves on her back.
Ailsa Mellon Bruce
This impressive painting was bequeathed to the National Gallery by the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Ailsa Mellon Bruce (1901 – 1969) was the daughter of Andrew W. Mellon (1855 – 1937) a controversial, roguish, but extremely successful financier who, after amassing a huge fortune during WW1, began collecting old masters’ paintings. He then became Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932 and U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1932 until 1933. In 1930 he was quick to seize a golden opportunity offered by Stalin’s indifference to the arts: the Soviet dictator had ordered to the directors of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad to raise cash by selling artworks. Mellon took home 21 incredible paintings paying what was for him a pittance, just to mention a couple of them: Raphael’s Alba Madonna and Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation. In 1936 Mellon convinced President Roosevelt to build the National Gallery of Art in Washington and donated his collection to the American people, even financing and supervising the construction of that imposing building.
In 1967, his daughter Ailsa purchased Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lichtenstein Lady from the Princely House of Lichtenstein, paying five million dollars for it. A hefty sum of money in those days: possibly the equivalent of 100 millions today but clearly still a bargain. How this portrait got it into Lichtenstein in the first place it is anybody’s guess and it is normally seen as a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci.
Who was Ginevra de’ Benci?
Tradition has that this is a portrait of the seventeen years old Ginevra de’ Benci, daughter of Amerigo de’ Benci, painted on the occasion of her marriage with Luigi di Bernardo di Lapo Niccolini, on 15 January 1474. In Florence, Ginevra not only was a famous beauty but also an accomplished poet, possessing a classic instruction. We have two sonnets by Lorenzo de’ Medici in which her charm and beauty are celebrated.
That Leonardo Da Vinci was a friend of the brother of Ginevra, Giovanni, it is certain because he left his unfinished Adoration of the Magi – today at the Uffizi Museum, Florence – in the house of Amerigo de’ Benci, Giovanni and Ginevra’s father, when in 1482 he had departed to Milan.
Giorgio Vasari (4) in his Life of Leonardo Da Vinci dated 1550 (second edition 1568) mentions that he had painted a wonderful portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and also the Anonimo Magliabecchiano (5) as well as the Book of Antonio Billi confirm it.
Granted that Leonardo had indeed painted her portrait, are we sure that this the Lichtenstein Lady is really Ginevra de’ Benci? The fact is that we are not sure, as in most of the things created by Leonardo Da Vinci. Critics tend to believe that she is, simply because at her back there is a juniper tree, ginepro in Italian, therefore Ginevra. A rather weak argument and when we look at her it is hard to believe that this lady was only seventeen years old and that she was a great beauty who had the Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519) lose his head for her.
This lady, more than a girl, looks like a mature woman and, furthermore, she seems like going to a funeral, more than going to her marriage: she wears no jewelry on her neck and carries a funereal black sash on her shoulder. If really this work was delivered by Leonardo on the date of her marriage, as it is claimed, then he should have begun it at least one year earlier, when she was only sixteen years old. But we know for a fact that Leonardo could not be pushed to work fast, not even by kings and queens. Quite the contrary!
Because of the wreath on the back – not painted by Leonardo Da Vinci – some see a connection with the Venetian Ambassador Bernardo Bembo (6). There is a garland of a juniper and a palm painted in the back with the words Virtvtem Forma Decorat normally translated as Beauty adorns Virtue. The laurel and the palm were present in Bembo’s own device.
Bernardo Bembo was married with Elena Marcello, who gave him several children including the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. It is claimed that this painting was commissioned by the Venetian Ambassador Bernardo Bembo, a friend of the Benci, because his family motto was Virtvs and Honor (Virtue and Honor), with a laurel and palm, which is similar to that we find on the back of the painting.
Legend has that has soon as Bernardo Bembo arrived in Florence he was in love with the newly married Ginevra de’ Benci. It is claimed that it was a just a platonic, intellectual love, of the kind sung by Dante and Petrarca but we cannot be sure about it because, in spite of his motto, he was certainly not a gentleman. We have several letters he penned in Florence requesting favors and money for himself and for his family by the Medici, creating a clear conflict of interests with the interests of the Country he was representing. Bernardo Bembo was very close to the circle of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and in fact he did business with them which had little to do with diplomacy, borrowing large sums of money from them.
Bembo’s first stint in Florence begun in January 1475 and lasted until the month of May 1476, and he struck a great personal friendship with Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici. Proof is that on 15 October, 1510 when Giuliano de’ Medici, the duke of Nemours and patron of Leonardo Da Vinci, was in Venice, he did stay in Bembo’s house
Bernardo Bembo was still in Venice on the 23rd of December 1474 when the Senate appointed him Ambassador to Florence, he then reached Florence in January 1475 because there he witnessed the famous giostra which had inspired the Stanze by Angelo Poliziano. They were games organized to celebrate the league between Florence, Milan and Venice. Because of such close relationship with the Medici, the Venetian Senate sent Bembo back to Florence a second time as their representative in July 1478, after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici during the Pazzi conspiracy. He will stay in Florence for two more years but the levity and happiness of his first stay could not be repeated because of the different situation in the Italian Peninsula and in Florence.
Ginevra married on January 14, 1474 and Bembo arrived as Venetian ambassador in 1475. The Florentine year was beginning ab incarnatione – that is the 25th of March – and therefore the true date of Ginevra de’ Benci’s marriage should be moved ahead of one year, to January 14, 1475, it is thus impossible that the portrait was commissioned by Bembo for the marriage of his platonic sweetheart as most of the books dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci are claiming. As we have said Bernardo Bembo arrived in Florence in January 1475 – not ab incarnatione this time – and this is certain because he was there when the great Giostra won by Giuliano de’ Medici, was staged and it really happened in January 1475. Such tournament was a celebration of the peace brokered by Lorenzo de’ Medici in November 1474 with an alliance between Florence, Milan and Venice.(7)
Because of such clear date sequence it seems clear that Bernardo Bembo had nothing to do with the Lichtenstein Lady’s portrait .
At the Bargello Museum in Florence there is a marble bust attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488) – Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher – believed to represents Fioretta Gorini (1453? – 26 April 1478). She is holding a bunch of flowers close to her chest (fioretti or fiorellini in Italian). Carlo Pedretti is one of the few to believe that represented there is actually one of the favorite of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lucrezia Donati (1447 –1501) who had married Niccolò Ardinghelli, a merchant who died in 1496. (8) This opinion by Pedretti has merits, because Lorenzo de’ Medici, after married Clarice Orsini for state reasons had always her in his mind and there is trace of a commission from Lorenzo to Verrocchio to paint her portrait. There we may notice the same somber, funereal, expression on the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery.(9)
Virtually nothing is known about this Fioretta, mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici but her surname, Gorini, seems not Florentine. Fioretta gave birth to Giulio de’ Medici on May, 26 1478, pope Clement VII, dyeing at childbirth, one month after the murder of her lover, Giuliano de’ Medici. It is likely that Bembo had met the courtesan Fioretta Gorini there, even if we have no details about this meeting, nor about the unlucky Fioretta.
The latin motto on the back could well refer to the virtuous Fioretta, not to the virtuous Ginevra who had repelled the unrecorded amorous advances of Ambassador Bembo. The so called portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci could rather be the portrait of Fioretta Gorini. The baby born to Fioretta was taken to be baptized by Antonio Giamberti da Sangallo (1443-1516), an architect and a close friend of Giuliano and then presented to Lorenzo de’ Medici, who accepted him into the Medici’s household.
Having been so close to Lorenzo and his deceased brother, Giuliano, Bernardo Bembo may have thought a sensitive move to commission to Leonardo Da Vinci a portrait of the deceased Fioretta, to be given to her orphan son, the future pope Clement VII. Hence the origin of the back of the painting, reminding Bembo personal device, and possibly because of the subject we can see a reason for Giulio de’ Medici to get rid of that painting, not wanting to let people know that his mother was a courtesan.
Is she Caterina, the mother of Leonardo Da Vinci?
That Leonardo painted a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is sure, but it seems also sure that it has been lost or that it is hanging in a Museum gallery with a wrong attribution.
This is a leonardesque mystery similar to the head of Monna Lisa del Giocondo, which Leonardo painted but has probably nothing to do with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. During the Renaissance when an artist received a commission for a portrait he was not free to deliver something which would not please the sitter, like in our days did Francis Bacon’s unflattering portrait of Queen Elisabeth II…When Leonardo painted the Lady with the Ermine for Ludovico Sforza he painted the real Cecilia Gallerani, and when he painted another of his favorites, Letizia Crivelli, in a picture known as La Belle Ferronnière he had the real lady portrayed.
The likeness of the marble bust at the Bargello, thought to be Fioretta Gorini, with Leonardo’s Lichtenstein Lady‘s painting is just too great to be missed. It might also be that this marble bust was not sculptured by Verrocchio – in fact its attribution is uncertain, like for most of Verrocchio’s works, with the exception of the David and the Bartolomeo Colleoni equestrian monument in Venice.
We believe that this marble bust could well be the only sculptures in existence by Leonardo da Vinci. But we are not the first to make such claim and we do believe that there are strong supporting arguments.
It seem to us that with the Lichtenstein Lady Leonardo da Vinci was painting a similar dead woman represented in the marble bust, changing somehow her facial expression but keeping the same silken blouse and the same hairstyle and bloodless skin. The slit in the bodice of the painting at the National Gallery had been badly over-painted; this is another indication that originally it was closer to the marble bust and the overpainting was probably due to the fact that the top of the sprig of flowers was visible there, or the top of her fingers.
The Medici had a tradition of keeping their mistresses secret and they may have not revealed to Verrocchio and Leonardo the true identity of the lady they were representing, nor their real appearance. This is a process which Giuliano de’ Medici duke of Nemours will perhaps follow years later in commissioning a portrait of Pacifica Brandani to Leonardo, which is now known as the Mona Lisa of the Louvre.
For such commissions there was no need to deliver a portrait which resembled the dead person; it could be idealized according to the wishes of the artist. In the case of Mona Lisa Leonardo had may have painted a dreamlike image of his mother’s smile, as Sigmund Freud wrote in his 1910’s essay but in the case of the Lichtenstein Lady he may have in fact copied his mother as she really was. In this picture the Chinese characters of her face are even stronger than in the case of the Mona Lisa and a further hint lays the fact that the face of Leonardo in the Adoration of the Magi is very similar to that of Ginevra de’ Benci. Leonardo Da Vinci may have used his facial traits to sketch the face of Fioretta Gorini or he may have used his mother’s facial traits. Leonardo may have sketched his mother, Caterina, during one of his visits to Vinci and then he transposed her features into the painting of a dead lady who had given birth to a Medici, destined to the papacy. The Chinese traits of this lady are clear and impressive, then the only concession he seems to have made the clients who commissioned the picture could be her blonde hairs, a symbol of fairness also in those years. The art of coloring hairs was widespread in Italy since Roman times.
Thus the Latin motto on the back could be raised to a loftier signification: the wretched Chinese slave (10) that was his mother, in spite of her unfamiliar face, was to be honored up to our days because of her virtue.
1) Suarès Voyage de Condottiere, Paris, 1931.
2) Bramly, S. Leonardo. The Artist and the Man, 1991, p. 150.
3) Pedretti C. Leonardo & Io, Milan, 2008, p. 88.
4) Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Eminent Painters and Architects, 1st Ed. Florence, 1550. He drew Ginevra, the daughter of Amerigo Benci, a beatiful portrait, and then abandoned the work of the friars, who recalled Filippino, though he was prevented from finishing it by death.
5) Anonimo Magliabecchiano (known also as Anonimo Gaddiano). In Florence he painted a portrait of Ginevra d’Amerigho Benci from Nature, a work which was so finished that it seemed not a portrait but Ginevra herself.
6) Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Fond. Treccani, Vol. 8 1966.
7) Pedretti, Carlo Leonardo & Io, Milan, 2008, p. 501.
8) Walter, Ingeborg Lorenzo il Magnifico e il suo Tempo, Rome, 2005. Dj legname, drentovi la fighura della testa della Lucherezia de’ Donatj
9) Hans Mackowsky, William Suida et al.
10) Paratico A. Leonardo Da Vinci. A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance’s Italy, Lascar Publishing, p.60