FORGET THE CODE, LOOK AT THE PAINTING
 
LEONARDO DA VINCI, GINEVRA DE BENCI, ca.1474
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)
 

    At some point during its 500-year existence, Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci suffered the kind of injury that would have been fatal to a lesser painting. For reasons unknown–possibly damage from a fire or some other accident–the lower third of the work was removed and thrown away. In my mind’s eye I picture the scene: a skilled craftsman, an employee of Ginevra’s aristocratic owners, stands at his workbench. He steadies the panel with one hand and with the other begins to saw. I can almost hear the rasping of the blade as it passes through dry wood. Did the painting lie face-up or face-down during the operation? Did he look into Ginevra’s eyes as he sawed through her bosom and amputated her arms, or did he turn the panel over and cut through the symbolic wreath painted on its back? And what did he do with the removed piece? Was it tossed into the workshop fire, or did he use it to repair something else? There is a slight but tantalizing possibility that somewhere in a Florentine or Viennese antique shop there is a dresser drawer that, if removed, would reveal on its back wall the slightly damaged but exquisitely drawn hands of Ginevra de Benci. Idle fantasy? Au contraire, a now-priceless Van Gogh canvas was once used to patch a chicken coop, and stranger things have happened to old pieces of wood.

    So the painting that hangs today in the Washington National Gallery is significantly different from that conceived and executed by Leonardo in fifteenth-century Florence. A surviving drawing by da Vinci and a related painting by Lorenzo di Credi (now in the Met’s collection) suggest that the sitter’s hands might have been even more prominent and important here than in the Mona Lisa. We will never know with certainty, however, what the missing part contained. What’s lost is lost, but the most amazing thing about this work is that the surviving portion is so beautiful, so compelling, that what is lost ceases to matter. This is one of those very rare paintings that has a quality more often found in the greatest pieces of ancient sculpture: its beauty overcomes fragmentation. The missing bottom is like an insignificant memory worn away by passing time. What remains is indelible.

    As I enter the gallery and walk directly to the painting (unlike her Parisian half-sister, Ginevra is rarely mobbed and can be viewed in relative peace), my first impression is of sculptural solidity. This is an early work by Leonardo, and the influence of his master Verrocchio is apparent in the pale, unblemished skin that looks like highly polished marble and gives the whole painting, in its cut down form, the accidental appearance of a Renaissance portrait bust. The spiky, forbidding branches of the juniper–an Italian pun on the sitter’s name–surround her head like a dark halo and contrast sharply with her smooth face and wide, high forehead. Walter Pater writes of Leonardo’s "heavy German foreheads–too heavy and German for perfect beauty."1 Ginevra’s forehead, with its symmetrical borders of curls that meet at its highest point, suggests a surreal architectural construction: a pointed Gothic arch astride a white Renaissance dome. However imperfect by Paterian standards, it is–somehow–still beauty. Soft shadows subtly model the volumes of her cheeks and chin, creating a remarkable illusion of presence and somewhat softening the forehead’s bright, stony hardness. But only when we move to the edges of the face and look at that glossy, curling hair do we encounter a texture no sculptor–not Verrocchio, not even Michelangelo–could counterfeit.

    To pass from the skin to the hair is like a change of medium–from stone to oil paint. Now we are looking at liquid. The hair flows like water. Cascading down from its source at the top of her head, it falls in gentle curves that agitate into Leonardo’s trademark watery spirals and swirls. This vigorous action even splashes out onto her skin: tiny strands of hair cross the contours of her face like sprays of mist tossed upon a shelf of coastal rock. These face-framing curls are so lovingly and meticulously painted that they seem fetishized. It’s as if Ginevra’s hair was the only aspect of her body that gave this very gay painter any sexual frisson, so he threw all of his libidinal energy into its depiction. Leonardo’s excitement becomes our excitement, and once we fully appreciate the energy of the hair, the whole painting seems to come alive. Suddenly, everything is flowing. Light and shadow drift across her cheeks; the black scarf flows down from her neck, describing an ovoid shape that echos her oval face; a thin, white, transparent garment flows around her neck, is gathered at the base of her throat, then continues downward; the lacing on her dress flows in a zigzag pattern off the bottom of the mutilated panel, and no one today can tell us what flowed through the lower third of Leonardo’s work. The watery, glassy texture of her hair is echoed with exquisite subtlety in the thin, watery surface of her eyes. Fashionably trimmed of lashes, Ginevra’s eyes look strange to our modern (lashed) ones. They have a weird, fish-like, reptilian air, these aquatic eyes. They are two elongated ovular pools in which float irises the color of her hair, and when we scan the painting for an analogy our gaze falls naturally upon the patch of water in the right background.

    This shimmering pool is the interpretive crux of the work, a point Leonardo underlines by elaborately connecting the surface of the water to the woman’s form. The pool shares the liquid texture of her eyes and hair; the broken reflections of trees and sky on the pool’s surface pick up the autumnal brown of her hair and dress as well as the blue lacing at her bosom; even the shape of this blue lacing strip is faintly echoed (with a reversal of colors) in the triangular reflection of a brown tree against blue sky. What does all of this mean? What is the significance of the pool? Unlike the rivers that slither through the rocky background of the Mona Lisa, this is a closer, more static, more intimate body of water. It is more controlled, more self-contained than Lisa’s waters; it may be a section of river, but we don’t see it flowing out into the distant landscape. The pool appears surrounded by trees in the same way that Ginevra’s face is framed by her hair and her head by the juniper. In light of the connection between the water and Ginevra’s watery eyes, one might invoke the old cliche and consider the pool an alternative ‘window to her soul.’ But this window is more of a mirror, and if we gaze long into it we might end up like Narcissus, staring at ourselves, seeing only the meanings we project upon the shimmering water. I see this reflecting pool as a complex symbol of the self. The water’s surface, the world reflected back at us, is fascinating, but it is merely a surface, a superficial film akin to the transparent cloth at Ginevra’s collar or the watery film over her eyes. Like Ginevra’s perfect poker face, the pool is a beautiful surface that conceals its depths. For Leonardo, the point is to pass below the surface and explore the oceanic self within, to move beyond the mirror of portraiture and ask the almost impossible question: who is this woman, really, when she is alone with her thoughts?

    Pater thinks that in studying nature Leonardo learned "the art of going deep, of tracking the sources of expression to their subtlest retreats..."2 This is da Vinci’s compulsion, the limitless curiosity that wants to know everything about everything and to jot it all down in his notebooks, Europe’s first and most chaotic encyclopedia. The type of competent, patron-pleasing, perfectly recognizable portrait that would have been sufficient for any other Florentine painter was not enough for Leonardo. He is compelled to go deeper, to show us both the shape of the sitter’s face and the form of her personality. In this sense, Ginevra de Benci can be considered an anti-portrait, commenting upon the falsehood of a portraiture that records surfaces while ignoring or actively concealing the complex psychological reality within. And perhaps no one among Florentine artists could better appreciate psychological complexity than Leonardo da Vinci: an illegitimate child who became a favorite of dukes and kings; a lover of men who created indelible images of women; a designer of weapons of war who painted visions of meditative serenity. Leonardo didn’t have to explore the outside world to learn "the art of going deep." His own unfathomable self was much closer to home. National Gallery publications have called this work "the first psychological portrait ever painted,"3 a judgement that can be chalked up to curatorial overenthusiasm (the curators should look more closely at Jan van Eyck, Antonello da Messina and even some of the ancient Egyptian mummy portraits from Fayyum). But even if it isn’t wholly unprecedented, Ginevra de Benci remains a revolutionary effort. It is an attempt to turn portraiture inside out, to pass through the looking glass of likeness and see the reality of the self.

    And what does Ginevra’s self look like? She is as soft as her curls and as prickly as the needles of the juniper bush. She is a little dangerous, with an inner life as exquisitely tangled as that interlaced web of bristles above her right shoulder. Her bland, noncommittal expression reflects a sullen passivity. I am reminded of those joke buttons that show a schematic face with a straight horizontal line for a mouth, all surrounded by the motto "Have An Ordinary Day." Some have seen sadness in her face, but to call her sad is to sentimentalize, and Ginevra is anything but mushy. That halo of porcupine thorns is there for a reason, and if we accept the psychological nature of the portrait, that reason must be more than just a pun on her name. The juniper is an emanation of Ginevra, an externalization of the combativeness she hides behind her gaze. For this is, more than anything else, a portrait of passive aggression, of the sullen silence that infuriates, of the blank stare that looks upon us and gives nothing away. She is of this world, but of its darker places, its shadowy trees and silent, secluded waters. She has inner strength and worldly wisdom, and she doesn’t put on a happy face. Her gaze neither engages nor invites the viewer, because she doesn’t need us. She doesn’t give a damn. Like her chic Parisian half-sister who packs them in at the Louvre, Ginevra is entirely self-sufficient. She needs nothing and no one. Her own endlessly complex self is enough.

    Does her story end, then, in solipsism? Does she settle for self-sufficiency only because she can’t escape from the self that da Vinci has so masterfully evoked? It’s interesting that Leonardo’s attempt to move beyond surface reality brings us ultimately back to that surface and the supreme difficulty of penetrating it. Can one person, one consciousness, ever really know another? "Nobody knows anybody," growls the hard-boiled gangster in the Coen Brothers’ film Miller’s Crossing. We might tend to agree. But if we think a little longer about Ginevra de Benci, if we go a little deeper, we will realize that this very painting is a remarkable victory over solipsism. When Ginevra de Benci sat for Leonardo da Vinci, two inwardnesses met in a moment of empathy. One senses that the young sitter and the young painter understood one another perfectly (maybe they were equally sullen and passive aggressive), and the final result of this mutual understanding, this seemingly impossible connection, is the painting before our eyes. Like the miracle of its survival, even in its mutilated state, the portrait itself is a triumph against the odds.
 
 
NOTES

1. Pater, Renaissance, 72.

2. Ibid., 66.

3. National Gallery of Art, 18.

 

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