Leonardo painted this portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci while still working in the workshop of Verrocchio in Florence.
The sitter has been identified from historical sources and by the Juniper bush (ginepro in Italian) seen behind her, which is thought to be a pun on her name. The Juniper is also a symbol of female virtue and this theme is continued on the reverse of the panel, where on a background of imitation red porphyry marble, Juniper, laurel and palm leaves are interwoven by a garland with the words VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT: “Beauty adorns Virtue”.
The front and back of the panels are closely linked as Ginevra’s beauty is to be understood as an expression of her virtue. The panel may have been cut at some point along the lower edge, where Ginevra’s hands may once have been. A drawing of hands now in the Royal Collection, Windsor, is thought to be related to this painting, and may give some idea of the original design.
Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra is a natural likeness of the young Florentine noblewoman. The format of the painting, the close-up view of the sitter and the natural forms of the Juniper bush and landscape background all indicate the influence of the Flemish tradition of painting begun by Van Eyck and continued by Hans Memling.
Leonardo models the forms of the sitter in a sophisticated combination of light and shade to convey the three-dimensionality of the head and body. By placing Ginevra’s body at an angle to the picture surface and turning her head towards the viewer, Leonardo achieves an unprecedented sense of dynamism that contrasts markedly with her calm expression. While the proximity of the sitter to the picture surface provides a sense of intimate engagement with the viewer, the watery landscape behind situates Ginevra in the context of the wider natural world that exists beyond the confines of the painting. By this means, Ginevra is portrayed as both a unique individual and an inherent part of Leonardo’s all-encompassing vision of nature.