Da Vinci's other enigma

For many Americans interested in art, a pilgrimage to Paris to see the most famous painting on earth - the "Mona Lisa," by Leonardo da Vinci - is a lifetime cultural goal. But in their haste to aspire to the Louvre, many have forgotten - or never known - that an exquisite Leonardo portrait lurks in the halls of the National Gallery in Washington, the only da Vinci painting in the Americas.

Younger, paler, more shy and serious than the "Mona Lisa," "Ginevra de' Benci" is now being thrust into stardom as the centerpiece of a new show at the gallery: "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women."

The show also features paintings by Botticelli and other Renaissance masters, and it highlights a pivotal shift in the history of portraiture: the dawning in the 15th century of an awareness that women were worthy subjects for painting.

The Renaissance idea that beauty was the outward and visible evidence of a virtuous nature in a woman is the show's theme. It is a concept embodied in "Ginevra de' Benci."

On the back of the portrait, Leonardo painted a juniper sprig (a pun on the name Ginevra, the Italian word for juniper being ginepro) intertwined with the motto "Beauty Adorns Virtue."

In the words of art critic Kenneth Clark, a "melancholy beauty" adorns the this portrait. She was thought to be 16 years old and recently married when the portrait was painted by the young Leonardo in 1474.

The daughter of a Florentine banker and a poet in her own right, Ginevra had become the object of Platonic affection of a Venetian ambassador named Bernardo Bembo, who commissioned the portrait.

Originally, the picture was larger than its current compact square shape - the bottom one-third was thought to have been damaged and removed centuries ago - and probably included the subject's hands. The bold three-quarter view of the sitter (profiles were the usual pose) is also a Renaissance innovation.

Renaissance women were highly circumscribed by convention, and rarely left their homes except to attend church or family events. To emulate the poetic ideal of beauty, they avoided the sun. Hence, the striking paleness of Ginevra's complexion in the portrait - its unearthly pearl-like iridescence - is proof that Leonardo was striving to achieve the goal of Renaissance portraiture: a blending of the real with the ideal.

In "Ginevra de' Benci," Leonardo's obsession with nature is shown in the rendering of Ginevra's undulating curls, which foreshadows his famous treatment of cascades of foaming water.

His choice of the spiky juniper bush for the background is thought to be a comment on Ginevra's prickly nature, as well as a continuation of the pun upon her name. Ginevra's only surviving line of poetry is an additional clue to what this enigmatic woman might have been like: "I ask your forgiveness and I am a mountain tiger."

Although Ginevra de' Benci's neutral expression is that of a cool customer in comparison with the famous smile of her rival, Mona Lisa, this early Leonardo portrait radiates a moonlike mystery and appeal deserving of greater lasting renown than it has yet achieved in the American cultural galaxy.

Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's "Ginevra de' Benci" and Renaissance Portraits of Women' is on view through Jan. 6 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This will be the show's only venue.

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