Christopher Swann’s 1999 documentary, which is now being re-released on DVD, is a compelling celebration of one of the most enigmatic masterpieces of 15th century Italian art: Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the 16-year-old Ginevra de’ Benci.
The portrait is significant at many levels: it was da Vinci’s first commissioned portrait (he was 22 when he received the assignment), it is one of only three female portraits created by the artist, and it is the only painting by da Vinci to be found outside of Europe (the National Gallery of Art purchased it in 1967 from the royal collection in Liechtenstein for a then-record $5 million).
As described by Meryl Streep in the film’s graceful narration, da Vinci’s work is a “portrait as complex as life itself.” Young Ginevra is a source of visual mystery – the pale, golden-haired beauty looks straight forward to meet the viewer’s gaze, but her own concentration appears to be focused inward. Perhaps she was resigned to an unpleasant future – her father, a wealthy Florentine banker, already arranged her marriage to a much-older man whom she did not love. Perhaps she was lost in her own artistic considerations – she was a poet in her own right (though her work, sadly, is now considered lost) and the inspiration of the poetic output of the Venetian diplomat Bernardo Bembo. Her mysterious beauty rivals the "Mona Lisa" that da Vinci would create three decades later.
The painting in its current state is not the full expression of da Vinci’s talent – the bottom third of the original portrait was cut away, for unknown reasons, at some point after the 16th century. However, sketches of Ginevra’s hands survive in the Windsor Castle art collection, and the film details how the National Gallery of Art uses computer-aided design to recreate what the full portrait to include its comely subject cradling small flowers in her delicate hands. The gallery’s use of X-ray technology also provides a deeper understanding of da Vinci’s approach to the portrait’s creation, including a never-seen original banner that was painted on the back of the painting’s wood panel.
Beyond the high-tech wizardry is a view of the National Gallery of Art’s painstaking 1991 restoration of the portrait. A layer of yellowing varnish was carefully removed from the portrait’s surface, which resulted in the unexpected unleashing of da Vinci’s original color compositions. The before-and-after comparisons are astonishing, with a previously unconsidered mastery of subtle hue transitions and a surprisingly intense paleness to Ginevra’s porcelain-fine complexion.
“Ginevra’s Story” is an utterly fascinating fine arts documentary, and its return is a welcome addition to the year’s non-fiction filmmaking releases.
“Ginevra’s Story: Solving the Mysteries of Leonardo da Vinci's First Known Portrait”
1999, Documentary, 55 minutes
Directed by Christopher Swann, produced by Richard Somrset-Ward, narrated by Meryl Streep
Released by Microcinema International