France may have the Mona Lisa, but the US has Ginevra

Leonardo Da Vinci’s only painting in the Western Hemisphere, the portrait of Florentine Ginevra de’ Benci, is located in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. It was commissioned between 1474 and 1478.

Ginevra de Benci

Ginevra de Benci, the first portrait by Leonardo da Vinci

Ginevra, a celebrated poet in her time, was the subject of the first portrait completed by Da Vinci. She’s said to be 16 years old at the time, making her only six years older than the artist. Ginevra was the daughter of a prominent banker and was most likely painted in celebration of her marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini, although speculations remain that the painting was commissioned by her platonic lover Bernardo Bimbo.

Ginevra is painted in a landscape setting instead of indoors, which was unusual for this time period. She is surrounded by a juniper tree, which, according to historians, signifies her virtue and serves as a witty pun on her name (the Italian word for juniper being ginepro). The painting is uniquely double-sided with the Latin phrase virtutem forma decorat, meaning “beauty adorns virtue,” on the reverse side.

Ginevra lived near Da Vinci in the Palazzo Benci near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The painting originally included her hands, but had been cut over the years.

Located in Gallery Six on the West Main Floor of the museum, the painting has called Washington its home since 1967. Owned originally by the royal family of Liechtenstein, the painting was moved to Switzerland during World War II. It was also previously located at the National Gallery in London.

A hidden emblem with the phrase Virtue and Honor was discovered during restorations at the National Gallery of Art in 1991. The phrase was known to be the motto of Bernardo Bimbo.

Learn more about Ginevra de’ Benci’s story in this hour-long documentary narrated by Meryl Streep.

See the painting through the eyes of Lee Sandstead on the Travel Channel’s Art Attack.

Written by OSIA National Office Intern, Carol Cummings. Cummings is a senior at American University, majoring in print journalism, with a minor in Italian.

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