Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci

The portrait (below, left) of Ginevra de’ Benci is currently the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas. This oil on panel, housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, measures 15 x 15 inches and was executed in 1474/1478 when Leonardo was in his 20s. It depicts a Florentine noblewoman who, at the age of 16, had this portrait made possibly for an engagement or wedding. Source courtesy of nga.gov.

The sitter is posed in a three-quarter view and engages the eyes of the viewer. This was revolutionary in 15th century Italy when usually only men were shown in this communicative, forward-facing manner. At the time, female figures were typically depicted in profile, looking away from the viewer (see, for example portrait of a woman, on right, painted by Filippino Lippi, 1440-42, image courtesy of wikigallery.org).

DID YOU KNOW that cosmetics in the Renaissance era included powder made from white lead, mercury and vermilion (derived from cinnabar)? Pale ivory skin was highly desired so women who did not have that naturally used white lead powder to achieve it. Cheeks also remained fair but needed to give off a bit of a glow. Mercury was sometimes added to the white lead powder and rubbed into the cheek area in order to achieve the necessary effect. Some Renaissance women also used white lead powder, laced with mercury, to accent their bust lines.