Art Confidential Magazine, published August 2022 (Summer Edition)
By Shane Guffogg
I first saw Ginevra de Benci at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. back in 1989. I was shocked by how small it was. However, something else stuck in my memory it was off. Her face seemed misaligned. Yet, the painting itself is exquisitely refined with every little detail her hair, the gold embroidery on her dress, the blue lace and the transparent white fabric that goes around her neck. Then there is the background the juniper bush behind her serves more as a backdrop, harkening back to those we stood in front of at the High School Prom. Why the juniper? It symbolizes female virtue. On the back of the painting is another painting of a juniper sprig that has a ribbon floating across, with the left side wrapped around a branch and the right-side weaving through what could be a palm or even an ostrich feather. Written on the ribbon is the Latin phrase, VIRTVTEM FORMA DECORAT (Beauty adorns virtue).
Ginevra was the daughter of a wealthy banker who lived in Florence, Italy, in the 1400s. At the age of sixteen she was married to widower Luigi Niccolini. A relatively unknown 22-year-old named Leonardo da Vinci, was commissioned to paint her portrait in celebration of their engagement. I use the word engagement to describe this portrait as wedding portraits would show the man and wife. Makes sense so far.
Leonardo began the commission in 1474 and finished in 1478. Considering its dimensions are a meager 15 x 15 inches, oil on wood panel, four years seems a long time to work on such a small painting. He worked on the famous Milano fresco, The Last Supper, for only three years and it is 15 x 29 feet. Yet, true to form, he started the most famous Mona Lisa in 1503 at the age of forty-nine and worked on it for thirteen years. Due to his inquisitive mind, Leonardo became infamously known for taking long periods of time to complete his art. He was easily distracted from the work at hand and far more interested in venturing into nature to craft countless drawing of leaves, the movement of water, or the flight of birds.
In a letter he wrote to the Duke of Milan asking for a job, he listed his skills and last on the list was – oh, by the way, I am also an artist. Leonardo conceptualized war machines, creating countless studies of futuristic tanks, submarines, and flying machines. He dissected corpses at the morgue to better understand what lies underneath skin and how the body works. He was also a playwright, creating theatre pieces and composed music. Good at everything, he was the prototype for the term Renaissance Man.
Ginevra de Benci stuck with me for so long, the fact that the left and right sides of her face didn’t match became an obsession. How could an artist spend four years obsessing over every detail of hair, highlighting single strands with yellow ochre against a burnt sienna, that rest weightlessly against her perfect porcelain skin? Coupled with a landscape that is the precursor to his most well-known paintings, the silhouettes of distant trees are painted in cerulean blue and reflected in a body of water brushes up against her sienna toned dress to achieve a perfect example of complimentary colors.
Ginevra de Benci stuck with me for so long, the fact that the left and right sides of her face didn’t match became an obsession.
My fascination over the dilemma concerning her face impelled me to create a body of work with the same title; an obsession that lasted two years and spawned fifty-two paintings. In each work, I took an area of the Leonardo’s painting, and focused on the color combined with a shape or movement. It served as-a-way to dissect his thought process while visually conversing, artist to artist.
As an artist, I have had those “ah-ha” moments, if just for a moment, when the universe makes sense. When it informs and transcends and propels and all things-become-one and all-time-is-that-moment. That is what I felt standing in front of Ginevra de Benci that first time, one third of a century ago. The painting could have been finished a year prior or 1000 years into the future, yet I would have still had that moment when all-is-one the feeling where I am a part of something incomprehensible. I can only look, feel, and be in the moment. In front of my canvas with brush in hand and dipping my toes into the mystical pond of the universe, my intuition summons Einstein’s theories where conceptions of a space-time continuum make perfect sense.
My fascination over the dilemma concerning her face impelled me to create a body of work with the same title.
I began as a figurative painter because that was what I knew – the visualization of the physical world. I don’t remember exactly where or when I saw beyond this world. The senses began to form pictures in my mind’s eye – at least that is a phrase that I can best use to describe it. This leads me back to Ginevra de Benci.
As my painterly skills improved through countless trial and errors, I began to see past the people and objects I was painting. One can only assume Leonardo da Vinci was experiencing a similar phenomenon when he painted this first portrait. Over the course of my two-year conversation with Leonardo, I discovered if I held my hand over one side of her face, the painting changed. The same was true with the other side. The left side of her face is pulled slightly forward as if he wants us to see more than what this world can offer from our fixed perspective. It provided a glimpse toward our future that came to full fruition with Picasso’s synthetic cubism and, in turn, tied into Einstein’s theories of relativity, all making up a visual and conceptual tapestry of time and space.
Leonardo places one reality in front of another, both existing only in his mind before manifesting onto a wooden panel. Where is that landscape from? We recognize its elements in the form of trees, a pond, the sky, but was it a real place? It is now because he made it so. Something else is occurring in this picture that lets me in on his secret: Leonardo’s inner vision revealed- he saw things few see. He saw through this world and into another. The space between the two shimmers like a hallucinatory moment amid what we know and what we think we know. This is what Ginevra de Benci is doing – hovering between moments of time and space. When an artist gets a glimpse of that and is still able to breathe, let alone paint or compose, dance or sing, then the world bears witness to the elusive thing we call art.