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Release Date: December 7, 2000

National Gallery of Art Presents "Ginevra's Story" A New
Documentary that Uncovers the Mysteries of Leonardo da Vinci's First Known
Portrait, Narrated by Meryl Streep, to Air on Public Television Stations

Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine, 1452 - 1519 Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478 oil on panel overall (original panel only): 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 9/16 in.) overall (thickness of original panel): 1.1 cm (7/16 in.) overall (with addition at bottom edge): 42.7 x 37 cm (16 13/16 x 14 9/16 in.) overall (thickness of addition at bottom edge): 1.9 cm (3/4 in.) framed: 59.7 x 57.8 x 3.8 cm (23 1/2 x 22 3/4 x 1 1/2 in.) Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1967.6.1.a

Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine, 1452 - 1519
Ginevra de' Benci [obverse], c. 1474/1478
oil on panel
overall (original panel only): 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 9/16 in.) overall (thickness of original panel): 1.1 cm (7/16 in.) overall (with addition at bottom edge): 42.7 x 37 cm (16 13/16 x 14 9/16 in.) overall (thickness of addition at bottom edge): 1.9 cm (3/4 in.)
framed: 59.7 x 57.8 x 3.8 cm (23 1/2 x 22 3/4 x 1 1/2 in.)
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1967.6.1.a

Washington, DC–The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, will present Ginevra's Story, a new, hour-long documentary narrated by actress Meryl Streep, on public television stations nationwide beginning in November 2000. The Gallery is the home of Leonardo da Vinci's haunting and hypnotic masterpiece, Ginevra de' Benci, the only painting by the master in the Western Hemisphere and the first of only three known portraits he painted of women; the others are Mona Lisa in Paris and Woman with an Ermine in Krakow.

Ginevra's Story is made possible by generous grants from ExxonMobil and The Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

"Ginevra de' Benci is one of our most asked-about paintings and is equally popular with visitors and art scholars from all over the world," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "Ginevra's Story is the first in a series of programs about some of the Gallery's greatest works of art, and we look forward to sharing them with an ever larger audience."

Utlilizing the potential of x-ray analysis and infrared reflectography, as well as the power of computer technology, Ginevra's Story takes viewers beneath the surface of what may be the Gallery's most treasured painting in order to reveal fascinating stories about both Ginevra and Leonardo. The film goes on location in the painting conservation laboratory of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the wine cellar of the Castle Vaduz in Liechtenstein, and the streets of Florence, Italy, a renowned center of Renaissance art.

Viewers will learn the answers to such questions as "Who was Ginevra and how did Leonardo come to paint her?" "Why was the panel painted on both sides?" "Why was it sealed in a wine cellar?" "What mysterious chain of events brought it to Washington, DC?"

The Artist
There are fewer than twenty paintings known to have been executed by master painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). However, he is often credited with changing the course of Western art. Extraordinarily gifted, he was the quintessential "Renaissance man," renowned also as a draftsman, sculptor, architect, town planner, inventor, scientist, writer, and musician. Ginevra de' Benci, painted circa 1474, is considered the first psychological portrait in art history. Among the experts featured in the film, Martin Kemp, professor of the history of art at Oxford University, discusses Leonardo's contributions and development as an artist. According to Kemp, Leonardo "set standards for how you can look at things and how visual materials can express fundamental truths about things."

The Picture
The sensitive and finely modeled image of the 16-year-old Ginevra de' Benci, the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker, probably celebrates her arranged betrothal to Luigi Nicccolini, who was twice as old as his bride. Some art historians have speculated that her pale and sullen visage was due to the sudden departure of the married Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo, with whom she had a platonic affair, an accepted convention at the time. The heraldic motif painted on the reverse side of the portrait, with the motto "Beauty Adorns Virtue," praises Ginevra, and juniper plants symbolize chastity. The juniper bush, ginepro in Italian, is also a pun on her name.

The Acquisition
For more than 250 years the painting was owned by the princely family of Liechtenstein. The film shows the castle of Vaduz in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein where the painting long resided, safely hidden in a wine cellar during World War II. The National Gallery of Art and its second director John Walker had been keenly interested in Ginevra de' Benci for two decades when, in 1967, Prince Franz Josef of Liechtenstein let it be known that the painting was for sale. The competition to acquire the painting was fierce. When the Gallery paid $5 million for the masterpiece, it was the largest sum ever paid for a work of art. In the film Italian conservator Mario Modestini relates from personal experience how the Gallery determined that the painting was authentic. Modestini and archival newsreels reveal the secretive and meticulous arrangements that were made for the painting's transatlantic journey to the United States. At the time of its acquisition, the painting was compared to Mona Lisa, which, as a Kennedy-era loan, had enthralled more than a half million visitors to the National Gallery of Art for 27 days in 1963.

Conservation and Discoveries
X-radiography and infrared reflectography, done in conjunction with restoration done on the painting at the Gallery in 1991, revealed an underdrawing made from a preparatory sketch, as well as evidence of Leonardo's fingerprints in the surface of the paint. Leonardo may have been the first artist to use the technique of softening the surface or edges of forms with his fingers while the painting was still tacky.

The reverse side of Ginevra de' Benci depicts a wreath of laurel and palm encircling a sprig of juniper with a scroll bearing the Latin motto "Beauty Adorns Virtue." Infrared reflectography revealed beneath the surface another motto--"Virtue and honor"--that of Bernardo Bembo.

In the film, National Gallery of Art painting conservator David Bull describes how the removal of discolored varnish from Ginevra de' Benci revealed the painting's clarity, extraordinary range of color and texture, and subtle modulations in the flesh, as well as the thinness of the paint application.

With the use of a computer and a drawing of hands by Leonardo from Windsor Castle in Great Britain, David Alan Brown, curator of Renaissance painting, National Gallery of Art, and author of Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of a Genius (Yale, 1998), was able to reconstruct the painting digitally, showing that it had been cut down by one-third some 200 years ago following damage by fire or water. Artists and scholars have been trying to visualize the complete painting for a century, but this is the first time it has been done with a computer. Alexi Bryant, digital imaging specialist, National Gallery of Art, assisted Brown in revealing how the original images probably appeared on both sides of the panel. The film also shows how the computers helped in revealing how the Mona Lisa and Woman with an Ermine may have originally appeared.

Film Credits
The film credits for Ginevra's Story are as follows: director, Christopher Swann; producer, Richard Somerset-Ward; executive producer, Joseph J. Krakora; co-executive producer, Ellen Bryant; coordinating producer, Frances Peters; editors, Michael Crozier and Jim Wright; music composer and creator, Michael Kidd; and location manager, Italy, Maria Laura Frullini. An Italian version of Ginevra's Story, narrated by actress Isabella Rossellini, is being aired in Italy on RAISAT; a Japanese version is in production.

Ginevra's Story is distributed by American Public Television. American Public Television (APT) is a major source of programming for the nation's public television stations. Known for identifying innovative programs and developing creative distribution techniques, APT provides stations with program choices that enable them to strengthen and customize their schedules. It also serves as an essential distribution and funding option for producers. More information about APT's programs and services is available on the Web at

The Videotape
The 57-minute videotape in VHS format is available for $29.95 through the National Gallery of Art Shops. To order by telephone, call 1-800-697-9350.

General Information

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Press Release

Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine, 1452 - 1519

Ginevra de' Benci