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How Much Is Fact?

Da Vinci's Tiger

(Beware of a few spoilers!)

While DA VINCI’S TIGER is fiction, my dramatization of Ginevra de’ Benci’s life is rooted in fact and carefully researched. Writing it was a delight because the historical truths of Ginevra, the Medici, and the artists of 15th century Florence are so fascinating and inherently dramatic. The novel practically wrote itself. For instance, the novel begins with a joust and ends with an assassination—both which actually occurred. And the title was easy—emanating from the only remaining line of Ginevra’s poetry: I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger. In and of itself that wondrously bodacious line was enough to make me itch to know more about the person behind that graceful, self-contained face of Leonardo’s portrait!

And then, of course, there is Leonardo da Vinci himself—one of the most complex, inspiring maverick-thinkers in human history. How lucky was I to get to write this?!

(Ginevra de' Benci, Photo credit: National Gallery of Art)

Here are the facts of her portrait: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci was a turning point in Italian Renaissance painting, representing a number of firsts. In addition to being Leonardo’s first portrait and probably his first solo commission, Ginevra de’ Benci is the first Italian portrait to turn a woman from profile to facing forward, out toward her viewer. Almost all female portraits were commissioned for weddings, displaying the bride laden with jewels, dressed in the most sumptuous and colorful of gowns, her hair elaborately coifed. Gazing modestly to the side at nothing, these women were essentially advertisements of their families’ wealth and position, gorgeous but impersonal icons of feminine beauty, possessions to be admired.

(Portrait of a Young Lady by Antonio Del Pollaiuolo, Uffizi Gallery; Young Lady of Fashion by Paolo Uccello, Gardner Museum, Boston)

By comparison, because she looks at us, Ginevra de’ Benci is the first “psychological” portrait, designed to reveal the sitter’s individual personality, the “motions of the mind” as Leonardo termed it. It is also the first portrait to integrate the sitter into an uninterrupted natural landscape. That too was a daring stroke since women were defined as indoor, domestic creatures, to the point of their being reprimanded if they stood too long before a window. At the time, popular opinion and several “scholarly” treatises claimed that a woman at a window might inspire improper imaginings of men walking by, thereby disconnecting them from God.

Finally, Ginevra de’ Benci was one of the first Italian paintings to be done in oils rather than tempera, the egg-based paint favored by Leonardo’s peers. He struggled to learn how to mix and use the oils as he painted Ginevra, but the subtleties in color and shading he achieved produced an enlivening luminosity in her skin and eyes that catapulted the young Leonardo—and those who followed his lead—to a higher level of artistry.

Some art historians even speculate that this small, intense poet-teenager sparked Leonardo’s ability to recognize, respect, and then convey female promise. His commitment to portraying women as strong, thinking, capable beings was a stunning novelty and innovation in fifteenth-century Italy. It’s hard to fathom today, but it took enormous courage for Ginevra to break all convention concerning women and modesty to face forward and look out, allowing Leonard and then her viewers to really consider her mind and heart. A mountain tiger indeed.

These are the bare-boned facts of the real-life Ginevra:

She was the granddaughter and daughter of affluent bankers with close personal and financial ties to the Medici. She was educated at Le Murate convent, which her father and grandfather generously supported, and which was run by Abbess Scolastica Rondinelli. Possessing a worldly intellect and business acumen, Scolastica improved conditions at the convent and played the politics of the city well. Her lay students not only “learned the virtues” but also how to read Latin. The black scarf Ginevra wears in her portrait looks to be a scapular, a devotional ornament like a priest’s vestment, which would mark her as a conversa, a lay sister of the order, with the freedom to come and go from the cloister.

At sixteen, Ginevra was married to Luigi Niccolini, a wool merchant twice her age. Her dowry was a rather staggering 1,400 florins, (one florin could purchase 30 chickens). Because her father had died, her uncle Bartolomeo probably negotiated her betrothal. Luigi eventually serves as Florence’s highest magistrate, the gonfaloniere, but at the time of their nuptials he was definitely of lesser lineage, finances, and social standing than Ginevra.

The fact the Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo takes her to be his Platonic love, commissioning a dozen poems about her, would have drastically changed Ginevra’s live. His attentions pulled her into the Medici inner circle of philosophers, artists, and poets and thrust her into the spotlight of Florence’s high society. Bembo came to Florence in time for the joust of 1475. By all accounts, he was charismatic, handsome, well-read, and extravagant, perhaps of dubious ethics. Clearly he was a nimble politician, serving the watery kingdom of Venice in many posts and in many capacities despite several controversies he stirred up.

It makes sense that Bembo would choose Ginevra to be his muse. Contemporaries noted her beauty, her virtue, the delicacy of her hands, her embroidery, plus her keen intellect and clever conversation. And her poems. We know of the one remaining line from a letter a court musician in Rome writes. He asks for a full copy of Ginevra’s verse to prove to Roman society the wit and sophistication of Florentine ladies.

Exactly who commissioned Ginevra’s portrait has been debated for decades. Because she is not bejeweled in the typical way of wedding portraits, it’s unlikely that it was commissioned for her nuptials. Most art historians now agree that Bernardo Bembo is its most logical patron, and given Leonardo’s career timeline, that the Venetian commissioned the portrait during his first ambassadorship to Florence (1474-1476). One of the strongest arguments for Bembo’s patronage lies on the reverse of the two-sided portrait. When the National Gallery of Art cleaned Ginevra’s portrait, an infrared study revealed that Leonardo changed the motto on the back to Virtutem Forma Decorat, “she adorns her virtue with beauty.” But the original Virtus et Honor that lies beneath was a motto Bembo used himself.

(Image Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

No one knows why the change was made, but it is interesting that Bembo appears not to have taken Ginevra’s portrait with him when he returned to Venice. In fact, the location of her painted likeness was lost for centuries, eventually surfacing in the possession of the royal family of Lichtenstein, from whom the NGA purchased the portrait. See the section “Ginevra’s Coming to America” to learn about the family protecting her from Nazi treasure-hunters and the secret negotiations that brought her to Washington, D.C.

By the way, DA VINCI’S TIGER is not a narrative about a passive muse, or merely a walking-tour through a breath-taking time in art. I don’t want to give away too much plot, but I found an amazing story of female agency within Ginevra. The more I read the bits and pieces known of her, tying those in with information about other female intellectuals in 15th century Italy, I found a young woman of personal resolve and integrity totally capable of making difficult, even defiant choices within the male-controlled world of Renaissance Florence. The early scholarship on Ginevra discussed her solely in terms of how men saw and affected her. More recent feminist-based research suggests a quiet but steely capacity within Ginevra. Her real-life ending—which many had pronounced tragic or melancholy—I actually view as a triumph of self-definition.

Fifteenth-century Florence, under Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo de Medici, is unparalleled in its pageantry, passion, and revolutionary ideas. It’s hard to imagine one city producing so many artists within a few decades—Brunelleschi, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Ghiberti, Botticelli, the Pollaiuolo brothers, Perugino, and Michelangelo, to name the most important. And of course, Andrea del Verrocchio and his apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci. Many of these artists were nurtured and employed by the Medici. A few even lived for a time at the Medici palazzo. With such fervent patronage from its political leaders, Florence became an artistic mecca that set in motion the Renaissance, liberating the hearts and creativity of an entire continent.

DA VINCI’S TIGER features the young Leonardo and his master Verrocchio. Over the years, Verrocchio’s talents and accomplishments have been overshadowed by his most gifted student. But in the 1470s, Verrocchio was one of the most acclaimed and sought-after artists in the city, remarkable in his output and diversity, a goldsmith, engineer, sculptor, and painter. His influence on Leonardo was vast. Many scholars now speculate that several innovations once credited solely to Leonardo, such as the subtle blending of light and shade called sfumato, might actually have been Verrocchio’s idea first, or a joint discovery between them.

The men must have been close friends. The younger artist stayed in the master’s studio and home long beyond his apprenticeship. One leap of imagination I take in my novel is creating a good-natured competition between Verrocchio and Leonardo regarding Ginevra, but my invention is rooted in fact. Verrocchio did create a sculpture, Lady with Primroses, about the time Leonardo painted Ginevra’s portrait. Just as Leonardo’s portrait was groundbreaking, so too was this sculpture. It was the first Italian portrait sculpture to extend below the shoulders and to convey movement, the figure appearing to have just gathered up flowers in the way Verrocchio carved and turned her shoulders.


(Photo credits: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; Royal Library, Windsor Castle)

The face, dress, and hairstyles of the two art pieces are strikingly similar, and the figure in the statue cradles blossoms that may have been referenced in one of the poems written about Ginevra that Bembo commissioned. Primroses were also part of Bembo’s family crest. Strengthening the hypothesis that Ginevra was the model for both works is the fact that Leonardo’s Ginevra appears to have originally held blossoms in a pose similar to Verrocchio’s statue. At some point, the bottom third of Ginevra’s portrait was cut off, probably because of damage. A study of hands with a sprig of flowers sketched by Leonardo is the basis for the assumption that the missing portion of the painting showed Ginevra holding a blossom.

Much of Leonardo’s dialogue in my novel comes straight from his notebooks—he was a prolific writer—and my depiction of his appearance and personality are taken from contemporary descriptions of him. His life was not without controversy and anguish. An illegitimate son of a notary, Leonardo was arrested in 1476 for sodomy, accused by a letter dropped into a tamburi—a box Florentines used to charge neighbors with breaking the city’s prejudicial morality laws. Leonardo’s arrest seemed to deeply affect him. He left Verrocchio’s studio and home. He became zealously protective of his ideas. By 1482, Leonardo needed a fresh start and moved to Milan to serve its duke primarily as court musician and engineer. There the other famous aspect of his multi-talented personality really blossomed—Leonardo the inventor.

Having such legendary people to plausibly walk through my novel was a gift. The basic details about the Medici are factual, including Lorenzo’s mentoring of artists and philosophers, his own talents as a poet and lyricist, the jousts he hosted, his horsemanship and charm, as well as his astute politics and cultural diplomacy. He was known as Il Magnifico and the title suits.

(Photo Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

His younger brother, Giuliano, was beautiful and beloved as Florence’s proclaimed “prince of youth.” Much of his celebrity revolved around his Platonic romance with Simonetta Vespucci, an exquisite beauty he championed in the joust of 1474, which opens DA VINCI’S TIGER. Many art historians believe “La Bella Simonetta” was the inspiration for Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus and Primavera, and for Leonardo’s Madonna of the Carnation.

(Photo Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In my novel, Simonetta and Ginevra are fond confidantes. I do not know for certain that they were friends, but a footnote in material about Le Murate indicates that Ginevra’s aunt was Simonetta’s mother-in-law, so surely they knew each another. They certainly shared a kinship born of being lauded beauties throughout Florence. By all accounts, Simonetta was well read, kind, and a particularly graceful dancer. She survived many intrigues and, like Ginevra, managed to retain her reputation for intelligence and dignity despite the men in her life using her for political advantage and social jockeying.


If you are interested in learning more about the process of researching DA VINCI'S TIGER, please read this post on my blog, which includes several "behind the scenes" looks at the joyful and occasionally aggravating world of historical research: lmelliott.com/lauras-blog/guest-blog-researching-da-vincis-tiger/

“In this beautifully written exploration of a real-life Renaissance woman, Laura Malone Elliott delivers the stunning tale of Ginevra de’ Benci, captured forever in Leonardo’s first portrait—a painting that broke convention and established the master as a force of artistic honesty."