Virtue and Beauty

Leonardo da Vinci, Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper, c. 1474-1478

Leonardo da Vinci, Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper (reverse of Ginevra de' Benci), c. 1474-1478, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund


Double-Sided Portraits

The Renaissance equation of virtue and beauty meant that even women who were not beautiful had to be made to look so in order to appear virtuous. To represent the moral aspect of beauty, artists attempted to fuse the real and the ideal, reconciling a convincing likeness with a poetic idealization of the sitter. Another way to portray virtuous beauty was by means of mottoes, emblems, or allegorical scenes depicted on the reverse of medals or paintings, which made explicit the connection between a sitter's outward appearance and inner nature. The reverse of Pisanello's Cecilia Gonzaga, for example, suggests Cecilia's virtue (she became a nun) through an image of a maiden taming a unicorn, which according to medieval lore could be captured only by a virgin.

Jacometto Veneziano, Chained Deer (reverse of Alvise Contarini ), c. 1485- 1495The daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker, Ginevra de' Benci enjoyed a reputation as an accomplished poet and was herself the subject of several poems by writers in the Medici circle celebrating her beauty and virtue. To convey these qualities, Leonardo painted on the reverse of her portrait a wreath of laurel--the crown of poets--and a palm of fame encircling a sprig of juniper. Entwined around the plants is a scroll with the Latin inscription for "Beauty Adorns Virtue." Similar emblematic reverses are found in a number of other portraits in the exhibition, including Jacometto Veneziano's Alvise Contarini. The chained deer and Greek inscription AIEI ("forever") on the reverse of Contarini's portrait proclaim his everlasting fidelity to his wife.


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