Virtue and Beauty

The Renaissance Image of the Ideal Woman

A cross between the real and the ideal, Leonardo da Vinci's masterful portrait of the aristocratic and beguiling young Ginevra de' Benci represents long-established notions of feminine beauty, yet breaks with Renaissance conventions of profile portraiture by boldly portraying the sitter looking out from the canvas in a three-quarter view.

The painting is the centerpiece of a new exhibition—"Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de'Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women"—that opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. on September 30. The show, which is on view through January 6, 2002, tracks the phenomenal rise and evolution of female portraiture in Florence from c. 1440 to c. 1540 and provides insight into the social role of women during that time.

Although their real features were depicted, Renaissance women were shown as their families wanted them to be seen—in their public role as upper-class women and as emblems of virtue and honor. "The homage accorded Renaissance women in poetry and art," however, "stood in stark contrast to their daily experience and position in society," writes Mary O'Neill. "Respectable women left their homes only to attend mass or family events.... The peak experience for a woman was a strategic marriage to a man selected by her father or brothers."

Portraits of women flourished in Florence because of the central importance of the marriage ritual and also because the city, under the influence of the Medici dynasty, proved to be fertile ground for creative innovation.

Sponsored by Airbus, the exhibition also features works by Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Agnolo Bronzino. Leonardo's c. 1474 Study of Hands, used by the National Gallery staff to digitally reconstruct a possible original format of his portrait of Ginevra de' Benci—which had been cut down because of damage sometime prior to 1780—is included as well.

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