- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

No black-tie dress code, discreet floral arrangements, the absence of champagne toasts.

Wednesday's dinner for "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women" wasn't the glittery celebration the National Gallery of Art usually hosts for major openings.

It was, however, much better than nothing, especially because Airbus, the exhibition's underwriter, initially favored canceling the event in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy. When it was decided later that a scaled-down affair would be suitable, the word went out: fewer guests, business attire and replacement of towering centerpiece extravaganzas with single candles and simple wreaths.
The mood was equally subdued as donors, trustees, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices (Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia) passed the exquisite images of "ideal" Renaissance women inside the 47-piece exhibit, which includes works by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Agnolo Bronzino, Filippo Lippi and, of course, the Gallery's own priceless da Vinci portrait of Ginevra de' Benci (acquired from Prince Franz-Josef of Lichtenstein in 1967 for the then-record sum of $5 million).
Ambassadorial guests tried their diplomatic best to lighten spirits saddened by troubled times.
"I thought they all looked Swedish," joked Sweden's Jan Eliasson of the Sandro Botticelli beauties on display, adding with a laugh that Dutch Ambassador Joris Vos had accused him of being "too possessive."
Asked if he was claiming da Vinci (who died in France in 1519) as a compatriot, French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang was quick to demur:
"I'll claim Chopin and Picasso, but not Leonardo although we did host him at the court of Francois I."
Like his colleagues, Mr. Bujon de l'Estang expressed the depth of his countrymen's "spontaneous expressions of solidarity and sympathy" regarding last month's horrific events. France, he noted, was "very much on the spot" with 5 million Muslim residents of its own.
Although quick to underscore the magnitude of the human tragedy in New York, several connoisseurs referred to the art world's material losses as well. Publicly displayed works by Henry Moore and Louis Nevelson were destroyed in the World Trade Center collapse, along with numerous drawings and sculptures by Auguste Rodin located in the offices of the Cantor Fitzgerald bond-trading firm.
Other guests mentioned a sense of earlier, less troubled times as they toured the exhibit of 15th- and early-16th-century works before dining on a simple but delicious and appropriately Florentine repast of pumpkin risotto, roast pheasant and poached pears.
The spirit of the era as depicted in the beautiful pictures of nobly born women may appear peaceful enough, but that was hardly the case.
"They were all painted in a horrible, unstable period of conspiracies, foreign invasions and civil war," Italian Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo observed.
Violence did, in fact, plague the golden age of the Renaissance, but happily, there is no memory of it in these beautiful pictures. As National Gallery President Robert H. Smith said in his after-dinner remarks, "They are symbols of a world of freedom that cannot ever be destroyed."

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