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Leonardo da Vinci: Portraits Before Mona Lisa
Leonardo and the Art of the Portrait
In Leonardo’s time, the portraiture was considered a genre of secondary importance, compared to the representation of the historical or religious themes that could give the greatest glory to the painters. Nevertheless, a rich market of important men and women was demanding portraits, as this was a formidable mean to mark their status and to hand down their image. Just think that Isabella d’Este, the duchess of Mantua, had persuaded Titian to make a portrait representing her forty years younger. Leonardo had never been chosen as a court portraitist (however the same Isabella d’Este had insistently requested a portrait to him). All his known portraits represent minor people, also Mona Lisa is “just” the wife of a merchant. This might have ensured him a greater freedom in innovating the established pattern of the portraiture. As a portraitist, his goal is the representation of the soul’s motion (il moto dell’animo) through an accurate movement of the face. This is clearly stated in the famous “Treatise on Painting” (1492). A new era begins with Leonardo in the art of portraiture: the rigid scheme (typical of the Italian tradition) featuring the subject portrayed profile is abandoned, the psychological insight becomes the fundamental element of every portrait. Mona Lisa’s elusive smile is the most eloquent and most famous example of Leonardo’s work about rendering the “soul’s motions”.
All people who make profession of portraying the faces live must obtain that the movements announce the motions of the soul— Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on Painting, 1492
The table below shows all the known portraits by Leonardo. We know four completed works, attributed with certainty, dating before 1503 (the year of Mona Lisa). Another one, the portrait of Isabella d’Este, exists only as a preparatory carton. The attribution of a sixth one, recently discovered and dated around 1490, La Bella Principessa (Portrait of a Young Fiancèe or The Beautiful Princess) is still disputed. After Mona Lisa, the only known work is the Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata), generally but not unanimously dated around 1508.
Portrait of Ginevra Benci
1474 - 1476
Tempera and oil on wood
Washington, National Gallery
Portrait of a Musician
Oil on wood
Milano, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with a Ermine)
1488 - 1490
Oil on wood
Cracow, Czartoryski Museum
Portrait of a Lady (La Belle Ferronière)
1490 - 1495
Oil on Wood
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Portrait of a Young Fiancée (La Bella Pricincipessa) - attribution still disputed
Chalk and ink on vellum
Portrait of Isabella d'Este
Chalk and pastel on paper
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Portrait of Mona Lisa
1503 - 1504 (or 1510 - 1515)
Oil on wood
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Portrait of a Woman (La Scapigliata)
a. 1508 or earlier
Hearth and white lead on wood
Parma, Galleria Nazionale
The Portrait at the Time of Leonardo
The Portrait of a Young Lady (a. 1470), by the Florentine artist Piero del Pollaiolo (or his brother Antonio), represents the most popular model for a portrait in the second half of XV century. The woman is represented profile on a background that has the only purpose of evidencing the shape of the face. She is far from the observer, cold in her beauty, nothing is revealed about her character, only the fine strings of pearls adorning her hair and her neck are evidenced.
In the same years, Piero della Francesca adopts a similar model in the double portrait of the Dukes of Urbino, that Leonardo may have known. Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza are portrayed profile, one in front of the other, but the landscape in the background, which stretches to infinity and alludes to the extension of their possessions, anticipates somewhat the use that Leonardo will do in the portraits of Ginevra de’ Benci and especially Mona Lisa.
The practice of picturing the subject with a landscape in the background derives from the Flemish art. The portraits of Hans Memling (a. 1435 – 1494), a German painter who had moved to Flanders, were very appreciated by the Florence wealthy class, who knew them from the colonies of merchants established in Bruges. Memling was used to represent his subjects with a three-quarters view, against a naturalistic or an architectural background.
The influence of the Flemish art is also evident in the portraits by Antonello da Messina. Antonello does not use the landscape for the background, preferring a dark background that exalts the details of the face, represented in a three-quarters view, with a new attention to the psychological analysis. Antonello had been in Milano in 1475. Leonardo da Vinci may have known some of his works during his stay at the court of Milano (1482 – 1499).
Portraits in Florence
The first known portrait by Leonardo (the portrait of Ginevra Benci) dates back to his Florentine period and it is one of his first autonomous works after the apprenticeship at the workshop of Verrocchio. The two drawings cited by Giorgio Vasari (the portraits of Amerigo Vespucci and Scaramuccia captain of the Gypsies) dating the same period have been lost.
The portrait may have been performed by Leonardo in the occasion of the wedding between Ginevra and Luigi di Bernardo di Lapo Nicolini in 1474. According to another hypothesis, it may have been ordered to Leonardo by the Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo, who had a sentiment of platonic love towards Ginevra. In this case, the work could be dated between 1475 and 1476.
The setting of the painting is strongly original in the Florentine environment. Leonardo abandons the celebrative laying profile and uses a three-quarter model that allows a deeper study of the face. The juniper backlit recalls the trees in the background of the Annunciation. It frames the face of Ginevra, forming an extension of the hair and alluding both to her name and her chastity. The dark leaves of the juniper remark the fair complexion of her face, the water and the nuanced landscape remind the purity. It is known that Leonardo has used his fingers (as in other works) to better roll and fade the colour.
On the opposite side of the panel, Leonardo has painted two sprigs of laurel and palm that frame a sprig of Juniper with a scroll bearing the inscription: Virtutem Forma Decorat (the beauty decorates the virtue).
Portraits in Milano
The long period that Leonardo spent at the court of Ludovico Sforza (also known as the Moro) in Milano (1482 – 1499) includes at least three important portraits that testify the progresses of the artist and his preparatory work to Mona Lisa. The activity of Leonardo as a portraitist is quite relevant, as it is his work for Ludovico il Moro, that includes also works of engineering and culminates with the large fresco of the Last Supper. However, he seems to have never been commissioned the official portrait of a member of the ducal family. The celebrative Pala Sforzesca, that shows Ludovico il Moro praying on the knees with the wife (Beatrice d’Este) and the children, is the work of an anonymous artist. Another supposed portrait of Beatrice d’Este is attributed to Ambrogio de Predis. The only Leonardo’s work that might portray a Sforza (Bianca, a natural daughter of Ludovico il Moro) is the so called Bella Principessa, a page detached from an incunabulum celebrating the exploits of Francesco Sforza (Sforziada). But the attribution of this painting to Leonardo is recent and still disputed.
Portrait of a Musician
The Portrait of a Musician, dating around 1485, is the only known Leonardo’s male portrait and shows some affinities with the portraits of Antonello da Messina, especially in the dark background. The removal of the layer of paint that covered the lower part of the painting has brought to light the hand holding a music sheet and has allowed identifying the subject with a musician. The man is caught by Leonardo in a moment of concentration, probably before beginning a singing. The concentration and the suspension of the action are evidenced by the dark background and the lighting, which contributes to model the expression of the face, carefully studied. The bust and the stole are finished in a summary manner, as if Leonardo had left the completion of the work to his pupils. The man is generally identified as Franchino Gaffurio, choirmaster of the Milano Cathedral and friend to Leonardo.
(The Lady with an Ermine) is the first modern portrait in the history— Cecil Gould, Art Historian
Cecilia Gallerani, Charming Poetess and Lover
The Lady with an Ermine, Cecilia Gallerani, was a important figure in the Milano of Ludovico Sforza. Her family had moved to Milano from Siena in the first half of XV century. The grand-father of Cecilia was a wealthy state official of the Duchy. Her father, Fazio, owned large landholdings in Brianza (a wide area in the North of Milano). He died in 1480 leaving eight children: Cecilia was seven years old. Nevertheless, she received a fine literary education by the mother. What we can guess, she lived alone at the age of 16 and was already a protected of Ludovico. In 1490, when Ludovico married to Beatrice d’Este, Cecilia was living at the Castle, she was regularly at the Duke’s side and was pregnant of a child (Cesare) from him. After his marriage and the birth of Cesare, Ludovico preferred to separate from Cecilia. She was given a palace in Milano, a manor (Saronno) and, at end, a husband (the Count Bergamini). Far from the ducal court, Cecilia was able to organize a small court at his palace, frequented by Leonardo and other Milanese intellectuals and celebrated by the storyteller Bandello, who describes her kindness and ability as a poetess. After the fall of Ludovico in 1500, Cecilia sheltered in Mantua, at the court of Isabella d’Este. She returned later to Milano but, after the death of her husband and the occupancy by the French army, she transferred to the Bergamini castle in San Giovanni in Croce, near Cremona, where she died in 1536.
Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine)
The Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, better known as the Lady with an Ermine, is probably the most famous portrait by Leonardo after Mona Lisa. It is agreed by now that the girl portrayed is Cecilia Gallerani, young lover of Ludovico Sforza. This portrait was appreciated by the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni (1452 – 1492), who celebrated it in a sonnet. Isabella d’Este, sister to the Ludovico Sforza’s wife, Beatrice, loved it so much that she asked Leonardo to portray her, thing that happened in 1500, but the preparatory carton probably never became a painting. The Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski bought the painting at the end of XVIII century as a gift to his wife.
The presence of the ermine is crucial for the composition and the interpretation of the painting. The muzzle of the animal is pointing something scaring outside the picture. This seems to precede slightly the same movement done by the head of Cecilia and the gesture of her minutely rendered hand that goes to calm the ermine. This thing outside the picture might be the Duke, Ludovico Sforza himself: this would explain the quiet, sweet expression of the girl and the alerted look of the animal. A similar movement and a similar expression had been used by Leonardo for the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks (1486).
Several meanings have been found for the ermine. It is a symbol of virtue and purity (a medieval legend says that it prefers dying rather than soiling its coat) and may allude to Ludovico Sforza and to his relation with Cecilia. Moreover, Ludovico Sforza had obtained the investiture of the Order of the Ermine in 1488. This was a prestigious title reserved to the Rulers and the allusion had to be clear to everyone. At last, the Greek word for ermine is “galé”, that is an allusion to the surname of Cecilia. The studies conducted on the painting have determined that the original background was not dark, but gray-blue, clearer on the right side.
La Belle Ferronière
The portrait known as La Belle Ferronière is dated in the years 1490 – 1495. It is the last known Leonardo’s portrait in Milano. In 1494 Leonardo begins the Last Supper and this work absorbs all his energies in his late staying at the Duchy of Milano. The painting is cited as the portrait of the Duchess of Mantua, as part of the royal collections at Fontainbleu in 1642. The name Belle Ferroniere, that literally means: the beautiful wife of a hardware merchant, it is due to an inventory error in the second half of XVIII century. Anyway, there is not agreement among the scholars about the identity of the woman. She has been identified in turn as Cecilia Gallerani, Beatrice d’Este (the wife of Ludovico Sforza) and Lucrezia Crivelli, another lover of the Duke. This last hypothesis would be confirmed by an epigram in the Codex Atlanticus, saying that “Leonardo, first among the painters, has painted her (Lucrezia), the Moro, first among the princes, has loved her”.
The dark background and the soft lighting evidence the clear skin of the face and the sensual neckline. Leonardo has carefully studied the movement of the face and the eyes of the woman. She seems to turn towards the spectator in the same moment in which this approaches the painting. Her expression, the way she points her eyes outside the painting, have something undefined that anticipates the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa.
The Portrait of Isabella d’Este
Isabella d’Este, the Duchess of Mantua, who was considered the most cultured woman in the Italian Renaissance, sister to Ludovico Sforza’s wife, wrote a letter to Cecilia Gallerani in 1498, asking if she could send the portrait by Leonardo to her, because she wanted to compare it to the works of Bellini. Surely, Isabella had been at the court of Milano several times and she had seen the portrait. Cecilia is a mature woman in 1498, married and mother to some children. She cares to point out, in her answer, that the current Cecilia is not recognizable in the girl of the painting. However, Isabella loves the portrait so much, that she asks Leonardo for a similar one.
Leonardo passes through Mantua in 1499, after his departure from the Sforza court. He makes a preparatory carton to fulfil the wish of Isabella. The carton is nowadays housed at the Louvre. It is a rare example, among Leonardo’s portraits, of a laying profile, but the profile pose of the face is counterbalanced by the three-quarter pose of the bust, that confers the figure a rotary motion right to left in a way that she imposes herself on the surrounding space. It is noteworthy the position of the woman’s hands, very similar to that one adopted for Mona Lisa.
We have not certain news of the final painting. A canvas found in 2013 in Switzerland has been suspected to be the final portrait of Isabella d’Este. The canvas has disappeared until February 2015, when the Italian police has found it in the vault of a Swiss Bank and seized it. The painting, property of an elderly Italian lady, was going to be sold for an amount, it seems, of about 120 millions Euro. The experts do not agree on the authenticity of this canvas: most of them, but not all, consider the painting as a work of a Leonardo’s pupil, done after the Master’s death.
As for Isabella, at last she may have had a Cecilia Gallerani-like portrait by the hands of Lorenzo Costa, if not by those of Leonardo. The lady in his painting, inspired to Leonardo’s portrait with a small dog, meaning fidelity, in place of the ermine, is generally identified with Isabella d’Este or Eleonora Gonzaga.
Vote Your Preferred Portrait
La Bella Principessa
A vellum laid on a wood panel, bearing the portrait of a girl, was sold at a Christie’s auction in 1998 for the amount of 21,850 US dollars. The painting was described as a German work, imitating the Italian Renaissance style and dating early XIX century. After the sale, the hypothesis that the work might be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci began to take hold. In 2010 the English art historian Martin Kemp wrote a book to demonstrate that Leonardo is the author of the portrait. Meanwhile, the seller of the painting had sued Christie’s for incorrect attribution, without success. This might seem the subject of a thriller in the art market, but it is a completely true story. If the attribution to Leonardo is confirmed, the value of the work would be over 100 million dollars.
Really, the strict profile laying of the girl is unusual for Leonardo (but not for his pupil De Predis) and incoherent with his theory of the “soul’s motions”. However, the attribution to Leonado is based upon some solid facts. First, and most important, a fingerprint observed on the left upper side of the painting and judged highly compatible with those found in other Leonardo’s works, such as the St. Jerome, early work in which it is unlikely the participation of any assistant. Second, the work seems to have been made by a left-handed. Moreover, Leonardo was among the first artists in Italy to use three colours chalks. Third, the vellum has three binding holes on the left margin, meaning that it has been extracted from a book. The book from which it comes has been identified by Kemp as an incunabulum preserved at the National Library in Warsaw, the Sforziada by Giovanni Simonetta, the history of the Milano Duchy under Francesco Sforza (the father of Ludovico). If this is true, the girl portrayed might be, according to Kemp, Bianca Sforza, a natural daughter, legitimated, of Ludovico Sforza, married to the captain of his army and died in 1496, a few months after the wedding.
© 2014 Massimo Viola