has never been an artist who was more fittingly, and without qualification,
described as a genius. Like Shakespeare, Leonardo came from an insignificant
background and rose to universal acclaim. Leonardo was the illegitimate
son of a local lawyer in the small town of Vinci in the Tuscan region.
His father acknowledged him and paid for his training, but we may
wonder whether the strangely self-sufficient tone of Leonardo's
mind was not perhaps affected by his early ambiguity of status.
The definitive polymath, he had almost too many gifts, including
superlative male beauty, a splendid singing voice, magnificent physique,
mathematical excellence, scientific daring ... the list is endless.
This overabundance of talents caused him to treat his artistry lightly,
seldom finishing a picture, and sometimes making rash technical
experiments. The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle
Grazie in Milan, for example, has almost vanished, so inadequate
were his innovations in fresco preparation.
the works that we have salvaged remain the most dazzlingly poetic
pictures ever created. The Mona Lisa has the innocent disadvantage
of being too famous. It can only be seen behind thick glass in a
heaving crowd of awe-struck sightseers. It has been reproduced in
every conceivable medium; it remains intact in its magic, forever
defying the human insistence on comprehending. It is a work that
we can only gaze at in silence.
three great portraits of women all have a secret wistfulness. This
quality is at its most appealing in Cecilia Gallarani, at its most
enigmatic in the Mona Lisa, and at its most confrontational in Ginevra
de' Benci. It is hard to gaze at the Mona Lisa because we have so
many expectations of it. Perhaps we can look more truly at a less
famous portrait, Ginevra de' Benci. It has that haunting, almost
unearthly beauty peculiar to Leonardo da Vinci.
subject of Ginevra de' Benci has nothing of the Mona Lisa's inward
amusement, and also nothing of Cecilia's gentle submissiveness.
The young woman looks past us with a wonderful luminous sulkiness.
Her mouth is set in an unforgiving line of sensitive disgruntlement,
her proud and perfect head is taut above the unyielding column of
her neck, and her eyes seem to narrow as she endures the painter
and his art. Her ringlets, infinitely subtle, cascade down from
the breadth of her gleaming forehead (the forehead, incidentally,
of one of the most gifted intellectuals of her time). These delicate
ripples are repeated in the spikes of the juniper bush.
desolate waters, the mists, the dark trees, the reflected gleams
of still waters - all these surround and illuminate the sitter.
She is totally fleshly and totally impermeable to the artist. He
observes, held rapt by her perfection of form, and shows us the
thin veil of her upper bodice and the delicate flushing of her throat.
What she is truly like she conceals; what Leonardo reveals to us
is precisely this concealment, a self-absorption that spares no