Virtue and Beauty

Sandro Botticelli, Woman at a Window (Smeralda Brandini?), c. 1470/1475

Sandro Botticelli, Woman at a Window (Smeralda Brandini?), c. 1470/1475, tempera on panel, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Andrea del Verrocchio, Lady with a Bunch of Flowers, c. 1475

Andrea del Verrocchio, Lady with a Bunch of Flowers, c. 1475, marble, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


Three-Quarter-View Portraits

Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474 - 1478While the profile portrait was de rigueur in Florence for most of the fifteenth century, artists in Flanders had been painting portraits of sitters turned in three-quarter view since the 1430s. Much admired in Florence, Flemish paintings hung in patrician palaces like that of the Medici, the city's most prominent family. In the 1470s, both Botticelli and Leonardo introduced this new type of three-quarter portrait in Florence. Botticelli's Woman at a Window (Smeralda Brandini?) and Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci represent a radical departure from prevailing conventions. Unlike the profile, which tended to conceal the sitter's individuality, the three-quarter pose reduced the barrier between sitter and viewer, bringing the two into eye contact. The new frontal gaze opened the door to portraiture that explored character as well as appearance.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hands, c. 1474Botticelli, like his master Filippo Lippi, set his portrait in a palace interior, the domain of wives of wealthy Florentine bankers and merchants. Although Ginevra de' Benci had married Luigi Niccolini in 1474 and was, therefore, a young wife at the time of her portrait, Leonardo broke with tradition by placing her in an open landscape with spiky branches of juniper (in Italian, ginepro, punning on the name of the sitter). Several inches along the bottom of the painting were cut off at some time in the past, but a drawing by Leonardo in the exhibition suggests that the missing portion contained her hands. Verrocchio's innovative marble bust of a Lady with a Bunch of Flowers, which some scholars speculate also portrays Ginevra de' Benci, offers another clue to the original composition of Leonardo's painting.


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