Before the Mona Lisa: Leonardo’s Captivating Ginevra de’ Benci

A look under the surface—and on the back—of one of the artist’s first portraits

Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474 - 1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

This painting may remind you of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. But the artist painted Ginevra de’ Benci more than 20 years earlier.

Discover why this early experiment was revolutionary in the history of painting.

Leonardo was in his twenties when he created this portrait, now in the National Gallery of Art’s collection. 

The budding genius had just begun to experiment with a new medium—oil paint.

Take a closer look to see how delicately he painted
Ginevra.

Her face is modeled with gradually deepening layers of shadow. Leonardo did not use line or abrupt transitions of color and light.

One of the artist’s contemporaries wrote that he painted her “with such perfection that it seemed to be not a portrait but Ginevra herself.”

Ginevra’s pose was another innovation. She is shown in a three-quarter pose, halfway between a profile and frontal view.

This is among the first three-quarter-view portraits in Italy.

How did Leonardo create this work?

He started with a full-scale drawing.

Sheet of Studies [recto] (probably 1470/1480) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Drawing was an important part of Leonardo’s artistic practice. He filled notebooks with images of people he observed. 

He made these sketches, also in the National Gallery’s collection, around the time he painted Ginevra.

Grotesque Head of an Old Woman by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Other times he used drawing to play with imaginary figures like this “grotesque” woman he sketched around 1489/1490.

Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474 - 1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Leonardo used a technique called pouncing to transfer his drawing of Ginevra to a wood panel.

He pricked holes along the lines of the drawing, then placed it over the panel. Leonardo then rubbed black chalk through the holes onto the wood.

Infrared Reflectography Image Detail of “Ginevra de’ Benci” (c. 1474/1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In these infrared images of Ginevra de’ Benci we can see the dots from the pouncing. Infrared reflectography imaging uses special cameras to reveal the material under paint layers.

Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474 - 1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The setting of Ginevra's portrait was young Leonardo’s innovation.

At the time, women were almost always portrayed inside, with landscapes glimpsed only through open windows.

Instead, Leonardo set Ginevra outdoors.

He painted the distant landscape in soft blue-gray tones.


The artist believed that our eye perceived objects in the distance in a blue haze.

Spiky, evergreen leaves of a juniper bush frame Ginevra’s face.

The leaves were originally a brighter green, but the pigment has browned over time.

Juniper is a traditional symbol of chastity, which was considered the greatest virtue for a woman during the Renaissance.


It’s also a pun on Ginevra’s name—juniper is ginepro in Italian.

Most portraits of women were commissioned for either a betrothal (agreement to marry) or marriage.

Wedding portraits were usually made in pairs, with the woman on the right side looking left toward her husband.

Since Ginevra faces right, this portrait is more likely to have commemorated her engagement.

If you look closely at Ginevra’s dress, you can see a gold pin securing one of her garments.


And blue ribbons lace through gold grommets.

But Ginevra’s lack of jewels, luxurious fabrics, and
elaborate dress is surprising.

Subjects usually wore their finest in betrothal portraits.

A reconstructed image of “Ginevra de’ Benci” c.1474/1478 by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The painting was originally larger.


At some point the bottom of the panel was cut down along the bottom.


A surviving drawing by Leonardo suggests that Ginevra’s hands were lightly cradled at her waist.

Ginevra may have held a small flower, perhaps a dianthus (known as a pink).


In Renaissance portraits, pinks commonly symbolized devotion or virtue.

“Ginevra de’ Benci,” c. 1474/1478 by Leonardo da Vinci, National Gallery of Art, Washington (1474/1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Did you know that Ginevra de’ Benci is painted on both sides?


On the back, we see Ginevra’s Latin motto, VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT, which means “beauty adorns virtue.”

In the center, a sprig of juniper again suggests Ginevra’s name.


It’s surrounded by laurel and palm leaves, which symbolize her intellectual and moral virtue.

Laurel and palm were also the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, Venetian ambassador to Florence.

While they each married other people, Bernardo Bembo and Ginevra had a (platonic) relationship.

Infrared Reflectography Image of reverse of “Ginevra de’ Benci” (c. 1474/1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Infrared images reveal Bernardo Bembo's motto—Virtus et honor or “virtue and honor”—beneath Ginevra's.


It is possible, but so far unproven, that he commissioned the portrait of Ginevra.

Ginevra de' Benci (c. 1474 - 1478) by Leonardo da VinciNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Regardless of who this painting was for, Leonardo captured his subject beautifully.


This small portrait shows the young artist perfecting his skills.

The lifelike and straightforward painting broke the mold.

And Ginevra’s frank gaze foreshadows the mysterious Mona Lisa, whom Leonardo would paint decades later.

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