Leonardo Da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, or Fioretta Gorini? Or Caterina, his mother?

Leonardo_da_Vinci_Ginevra_de'_BenciThe Lichtenstein Lady

The so called portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. – also known as The Lichtenstein Lady – is seen by most art critics as the first portrait created by the 22 years old Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519).

The influence of Flemish painters: Jan Van Eyck (c.1390-1441), Hans Memling (1435-1494) and Petrus Christus (1410-1472/73) here 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 eyes, 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 very 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 revealed 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 The Lichtenstein Lady’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 a wide guess.

This attribution has been confirmed recently by forensic scientists who have found Leonardo Da Vinci’s fingerprints on it;  we know that Leonardo used his fingers to smooth details of his paintings and his fingers were used for the face of  The Lichtenstein Lady 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 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: Raphael’s Alba Madonna and Jan Van Eyck’s The 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 its imposing building.

In 1967 his daughter, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, 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 80 US millions today but still a bargain. How this portrait got it into Lichtenstein in the first place it is anybody’s guess.


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 is celebrated.

That Leonardo Da Vinci was a friend of the brother of Ginevra, Giovanni, it is certian 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 departed to Milan.

Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Leonardo Da Vinci dated 1550 (second edition 1568) mentions that he had painted a wonderful portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci[4] and also the Anonimo Magliabecchiano  and the Book of Antonio Billi confirm it.[5]

Granted that Leonardo had indeed painted her portrait, how can we be sure that this is really Ginevra de’ Benci? The fact is that we are not sure, as in most of the things related to Leonardo Da Vinci, even if most of the art critics think that this lady is indeed Ginevra de’ Benci, 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. Another portrait believed to be Ginevra de’ Benci is kept at the National Gallery of Washington, attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, a friend and fellow student of Leonardo Da Vinci, but it represents a different person.

This lady, more than a girl, looks a mature woman and, furthermore, she seems like going to a funeral, more than going to her wedding: 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!


Bernardo Bembo


(On the left, the wreath on the back of the Lichtenstein Lady. On the right a reconstruction as it should have been before the cut)

It is claimed that this painting was commissioned by the Venetian Ambassador Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519) – 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 on the back of the painting. Bernardo was married with Elena Marcello, who gave him several children including the famous humanist Pietro Bembo. There is a garland painted in the back of The Lichtenstein Lady with the words Virtvtem Forma Decorat [6] normally translated as ‘Beauty adorns Virtue’ but it seems a interpretation forced by the intention to confirm our assumptions. The words are joining together a laurel a small juniper and a palm. The laurel and the palm were present in Bembo’s own device. Because of the wreath on the back – not painted by Leonardo Da Vinci – of this picture art critics accept the connection with Bembo.

Legend has that as soon as Bernardo Bembo arrived in Florence he fell in love with the newly married Ginevra de’ Benci. It is claimed that it was a just a platonic, intellectual love even if, in spite of his motto, Bembo was certainly not a gentleman. We have several letters he penned to the Medici in Florence requesting favors and money for himself and for his family, thus  creating a clear conflict of interest with the interests of the Country he was representing.  He 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.[7]

Bembo’s first stint in Florence 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 as a guest in Bembo’s house.

Bernardo Bembo in Venice on the 23rd of December 1474 when he was appointed Ambassador to Florence by the Venetian Senate, he reached Florence in January 1475 because there he witnessed the famous giostra which had inspired the Stanze by Angelo Poliziano: 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 as their representative in July 1478 for a second time, right 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 the first stay could not be repeated because of the different situation in the Italian Peninsula and in Florence.

Ginevra was married on January 14, 1474 and Bembo arrived as Venetian Ambassador in 1475. The Florentine year was beginning ab incarnatione 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 – knowing the slow progress of Leonardo’s work – that it was commissioned by Bembo for the marriage of his platonic sweetheart and then completed in a matter of days, as most of the books dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci are claiming.

Because of this clear date-sequence it seems that Bernardo Bembo had nothing to do with The Lichtenstein Lady portrait . Then what about seeing this as a posthumous portrait of Fioretta Gorini (1453? – 26 April 1478)?

Fioretta Gorini or Lucrezia Donati?

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 be Fioretta Gorini. She is holding a bunch of flowers close to her chest (fioretti or fiorellini in Italian). Carlo Pedretti is one of the few art critics believing that it actually represents one of the favorite of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lucrezia Donati (1447 –1501) who had married Niccolò Ardinghelli, an exiled  merchant who died in 1496.[8] This opinion by Pedretti has merits, because Lorenzo de’ Medici, after marrying 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.[9]  But a point in favour of the attribution to Fioretta Gorini is the same, somber, funereal, expression on the portrait of The Lichtenstein Lady at the National Gallery. We believe that this marble bust could well be one of the few sculptures in existence by Leonardo da Vinci and we are not the first to make such claim[10] and we do believe that there are strong supporting arguments

Virtually nothing is known about Fioretta Gorini, this mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, but her surname 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, not only Lucrezia Donati.

The Latin motto on the back could well refer to the virtuous Fioretta (or Lucrezia Donati?), not to the virtuous Ginevra who had repelled the unrecorded amorous advances of Bernardo Bembo.  The portrait of The Lichtenstein Lady could rather be the portrait of Fioretta Gorini or Lucrezia Donati.

The son of Fioretta was taken to a chapel to be baptized by Antonio Giamberti da Sangallo (1443-1516), an architect and a close friend of Giuliano, and thus presented to his uncle, 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 had been a courtesan.


Was Caterina, the Chinese slave and mother of Leonardo Da Vinci, the living model?

The face of The Lichtenstein Lady has an extraordinary Chinese look, which is hard to miss. Just walk in the street of any Chinese city, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and you will meet several Lichtenstein Lady look-alike, minus the blondish hairs.

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 which has 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 in Milan 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.

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 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 they real appearance. This is a process which Giuliano de’ Medici duke of Nemour will follow year later in commissioning a portrait of Pacifica Brandani to Leonardo, which is now known as the Mona Lisa of the Louvre.[11]

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 the Mona Lisa Leonardo had painted a dreamlike image of his mother’s smile, but he may have in fact used his mother as a sitting model.  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 the one we see here in the Lichtenstein Lady. 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 The Lichtenstein Lady are clear and impressive, then the only concession he seems to have made to the client who commissioned the picture seem to be her blonde hairs, a symbol of fairness in those years even if the the art of coloring hairs was widespread since Roman times.

Thus the Latin motto on the back could be raised to a loftier signification: the wretched Chinese slave 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.

[7] Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Fond. Treccani, Vol. 8 1966.

[8] Pedretti, Carlo Leonardo & Io, Milan, 2008, p. 501.

[9] Walter, Ingeborg Lorenzo il Magnifico e il suo Tempo, Rome, 2005.  Dj legname, drentovi la fighura della testa della Lucherezia de’ Donatj

[10] Hans Mackowsky, William Suida et al. See also http://beyondthirtynine.com/was-leonardo-da-vinci-the-author-of-the-marble-bust-lady-with-a-bunch-of-flowers-kept-at-the-bargello-museum/

[11] Paratico A. Leonardo Da Vinci. A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance’s Italy, Lascar, p.60.

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