- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

The feminists have done it again. Credit them with painting a picture of women's place in Italian Renaissance society that influences a blockbuster show opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art. The exhibition is called "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women." The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt had equated Italian Renaissance women with men. He saw women as enjoying a new equality with the opposite sex. Known for his 1860 study "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy," Burckhardt considered members of both sexes as individualistic and regarded 15th-century Italy as the birthplace of modern individualism.
Then, contemporary feminists examined the role of women in that society and their research debunks his view of women.
The feminists' placing of Renaissance portraits of women in their social context has contributed to the complexity and challenge of the National Gallery exhibit. The display of 47 works panel paintings, marble sculptures, medals and drawings chronicles the explosion of female portraiture in Florence from circa 1440 to circa 1540.
Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Agnolo Bronzino are among art stars represented.
The exhibit shows the "what, where and how" development of the profile, three-quarter and frontal portraits with their concomitant opening up of sitters' personalities. It traces the idealization of women as beautiful and virtuous within the strict ethical codes of the day.
The portraits assured prospective husbands of the moral being and behavior of their future brides. Chastity before marriage was the prime virtue for women. It assured husbands that family lines would continue intact.
Exhibit curator David Alan Brown, National Gallery curator of Italian Renaissance paintings, originally envisioned a smaller show focused on the museum's "Ginevra de Benci" (circa 1474-78). He decided to expand the exhibition into a much larger display showing the phenomenal rise of the panel portraits of women as independent from their husbands.
The museum acquired the early Leonardo masterpiece approximately 15 inches by 15 inches in 1967, and millions have admired it since. It is one of only three portraits that scholars securely attribute to Leonardo. A previous owner removed the bottom section because of water damage. Unfortunately, he eliminated the section that probably contained Ginevra's hands. As in other Leonardo paintings, the hands would have been an important expressive vehicle.
"Ginevra" is definitely the centerpiece of the exhibition although there are many dazzling dames. Leonardo and his sculptor teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, had advanced over the earlier profile portrait convention drawn from donors in religious works and images on Roman-type medals.
They progressed to the more open three-quarter and frontal poses used by northern artists such as Rogier van der Weyden. He turned the sitter of "Portrait of a Lady" (circa 1460) to reveal more of her face and personality. However, Leonardo and Verrocchio continued to make the faces of their portraits masklike and present eyes that do not connect with the viewer.
The show offers a rare opportunity to compare Leonardo's early "Ginevra," probably painted in Verrocchio's workshop, with his teacher's marble "Lady With a Bunch of Flowers" (circa 1475 to 1480), lent by the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. Experts agree in dating the sculpture to Verrocchio's mature style.
"Lady" is the only 15th-century sculpted portrait to present the sitter half-length with both arms and hands. As such, it relates to the "Ginevra" before that painting's trimming. Leonardo drew a silverpoint "Study of Hands" about 1474, now in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II, which could have been a preparatory work for those once in the Ginevra portrait.
The stylish hairdo repeats Ginevra's as does the see-through "coverciere" fastened with a tiny button at the throat. Both Leonardo and Verrocchio attired their women in simple dresses.
Verrocchio may have looked toward Hellenistic sculpture when he made the folds of the dress cling to the shapely body. Perhaps he also followed the ancient convention for funerary reliefs in which artists portrayed the hands of the dead on half-length busts. Verrocchio was at his best when he modeled the large, but graceful hands that tenderly hold tiny roses.
By this gesture Verrocchio introduced into sculpture the close intertwining of human beings with nature already common in painting. Leonardo continues the intimacy of nature and human in his "Ginevra" portrait, which seems to shout with joy. Leonardo set the young woman in front of a watery landscape clouded partly by a bluish haze. He included spiky junipers on the front and back of the painting as a pun on her name (ginepro is juniper in Italian).
Ginevra came from a prominent banking family, and she married the older Luigi Niccolini in 1474 when she was 16. He wrote six years later that she had long been ill.
The curator writes in the catalog that Ginevra was childless.
Producing children was a grim duty for Florentine women. Many died in childbirth because of little medical knowledge. The rate of infant mortality was high; half of the children born died before age 2. Childlessness, however, meant disgrace.
Salvation for Ginevra came in the form of the married Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo. During one of two missions to Florence, he adopted the Florentine chivalric custom and chose Ginevra for his platonic love. It was a kind of love popularized at the court of Lorenzo de' Medici, and Medici writers composed poems praising Bernardo and Ginevra's devotion and Ginevra's virtue and beauty.
Emblems and writings on backs of paintings also declared a woman's rectitude. Leonardo painted plants and a scroll on the portrait's reverse side to indicate Ginevra's virtuous character. Laurels and palms usually stood for moral and intellectual virtue. The Latin word for beauty entwines the juniper. Bembo's emblem of crossed palm and laurel indicates he commissioned this side of the panel.

Secular portraiture was awkward when first introduced to Florence about 1440. Many portraits commemorated dowries or marriages. Lippi (circa 1406-69) painted the two most innovative female portraits of the profile type. Profiles were synonymous with virtue at this time. Lippi's notorious involvement with a nun did not hamper his use of profiles nor interfere with his artistic experiments.
Naivete but also great charm characterize Lippi's "Woman With a Man at a Window" (1438-44), a prototype of the typical profile portrait in Florence. A sweetness infuses his more realized "Profile Portrait of a Young Woman" (circa 1450-55). The exhibit includes both.
Mr. Brown names the "Woman With a Man" as the most inventive portrait of a woman painted at the time. The curator points to Lippi's augmenting the format to show the woman's hands and an interior setting that includes a portrait of her future husband. The pair are Lorenzo di Rainieri Scolari and Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti, who married in 1436.
Lippi modeled Angiola after earlier ruler portraits. These distinguished earlier images dictated his choice of a profile pose and her queenlike bearing. The expanded half-length figure created enough space for the secondary male portrait. Lippi failed, however, in integrating the sitter with the awkward perspective of the domestic setting.
No exhibit of Italian Renaissance painting is complete without the works of Botticelli. He studied with Lippi but turned away from his teacher's static profiles in the show's realistic three-quarter view of "Woman at a Window (Smeralda Brandini?)" (1470-75). Mr. Brown believes that Botticelli aimed to approach her from a psychological point of view.
A few years later Botticelli departed from Lippi completely in painting "Young Woman (Simonetta Vespucci?) in Mythological Guise" (1480-85). It's no conventional portrait in its large size, the unusual facing of the woman to the right and its iconographic complexity.
The woman expresses Botticelli's ideal of female beauty with her loose and braided golden hair, high forehead and iridescent skin. The painter followed the canon of female beauty set by poets Dante and Petrarch with her attenuated neck, milky white skin, flaxen tresses and pink lips and cheeks.
Viewers can trace the changes in Florentine female portraiture by comparing Ghirlandaio's exquisite profile painting of "Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni" (circa 1488) with the meditative "Lucrezia Sommaria" (circa 1530) done by his son, Ridolfo, and with Bronzino's bright-red "Portrait of a Lady" (circa 1533).
The elder Ghirlandaio chose the profile view for his posthumous portrait of the young Giovanna. She came from a distinguished Florentine family and married Lorenzo Tornabuoni in 1486. Giovanna bore a son but died during her second childbirth in 1488, still short of her 20th birthday.
She poses in the Lippi tradition of facing a doorway to the left, with a resolutely vertical posture, arms crooked at right angles and hands quietly folded. Apparently the portrait was a fit commemoration. Her husband kept it in his bedroom for 10 years after her death.
Some 40 years later Ridolpho Ghirlandaio painted a more individualistic, but still idealized, three-quarter-view portrait of Lucrezia Sommaria. With Lucrezia's averted, almost pious gaze she could be a madonna or female saint. Lucrezia appears more mature than the young Giovanna as was typical of early 16th-century portraiture.
The woman in Bronzino's "Portrait of a Lady" (circa 1533) communicates directly and even humorously. The artist repeats the confident woman's wide, open face in that of her little dog and the flat face of gilded bronze on the arm of her chair. Bronzino knew of Raphael's portrait of "Leo X and the Cardinals" and patterned the woman's chair and brilliant red dress after it.
The later portraits reflect the more aristocratic tone of Florentine society around 1537 when Cosimo de' Medici became duke of Florence. Even with all the changes, the 16th-century portraits still represented an ideal of virtue and beauty.
WHAT: "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women"
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue at Fourth Street NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 6
PHONE: 202/842-6353

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