Nothing can be loved or hated without a full understanding.
With this declaration, Leonardo warns us against prejudice and errors of interpretation inviting us to delve into a deeper understanding of things. It might sound superfluous, yet one of the most common error we make, is superficial judgment, which leads to partial and mislead-ing understanding of things. No one is exempt to this.
A striking example of this is the presumed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1474 and today preserved at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The conclusion of the identity of the lady was inferred by the juniper tree painted behind the woman’s silhouette (Ginevra) and a cartouche on the back of the painting, which the emblem of Bernardo Bembo, a diplomat of the Serenissina Republic of Venice, with whom Ginevra de’ Benci had an epistolary relationship and perhaps even a love affair.
To support this interpretation, a written note by Giorgio Vasari, written in the 1568 document the “Vite”: “Leonardo painted Ginevra d’Amerigo Benci, wonderfully”. It is not the first time that an error has been made interpreting a painting based on the generic notes written by Vasari in the “Vite”. The Gioconda too, is often erroneously identified as Lisa Gherardini - Francesco del Giocondo’s wife - following Vasari’s notes: “Leonardo, commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, started the portrait of his wife Monna Lisa, struggling for four years, and then left it incomplete. The painting now is with Francesco, King of France, in Fontanableo’’ following by a long and generic praise of the painting.
In identifying the true subject, it would be sufficient to compare the Bembo’s emblem to the one painted by Leonardo behind the canvas, to see how this conclusion has frail founda-tions due to the lack of the juniper branch uniting the Olive and Palm branches. In an unspecified time and for unknown reasons, about a third of the painting was cut at the bottom. Research preserved at the Royal Collection of Windsor in England indicates how the painting probably looked; with the hands in the painting, before the size modification, which is presumed to have happened following deteri-oration of the painting.
If we observe the emblem on the painting in one of the images from the repertoire, we can see that the damage to the emblem is obvious, however, to great astonishment, not to the painting. This detail suggests that the damage was not accidental, as I will explain later in the article. For a number of years, I have worked on demonstrating the unmis-takable relationship between the landscapes painted by Leonardo and the landscapes of Larian Lombardy; Lake Como and the surrounding territories. To my surprise, this painting of the Milanese Duchy of Sforza, is possibly the only one in Leonardo’s production which has a completely different landscape.
A meticulous analysis of the landscape - in which Leonardo always put great care into depicting as close to reality as possible, as he explained in his document “Trattato sulla Pittura”, subsequently compiled by Melzi after his death - endorses my perception. In my opinion, the actual landscape is Sassocorvaro, along the river Foglia, located at the border between the regions of Marche and Emilia Romagna. Today, nearly is Mercatale and the lake of the same name, built in the 1950's.
Sassocorvaro is well known for the Ubaldinian Fortress built in 1475 by Francesco di Giorgio Martini from Siena. It became famous in the years after WMII thanks to the work of Pasquale Rotondi, Head of the Fine Arts in Pesaro and Urbino, who hid 10.000 of Italian Renaissance art pieces in the Fortress, protecting them from looting by Nazis fleeing back to Germany. On the right side of the painting, we can identify the landscape of the Foglia Valley, which also includes Mercatale and the hills towards Lunano, where, in 1213, San Francis stopped on his way to San Leo. On the left side of the painting, we can see, among the juniper bushes, an arch that represents a fundamental clue to correctly identify the location and consequently the portrayed lady.
I believe this arch to be the remains of Costa Gate, destroyed during the assault to the town by the Monferrato army on the 26th of August 1446. Through the arch, we can see Mercatale and the Foglia Valley, painted on the right side of the painting. With this analysis, it is easier to understand the identity of the lady portrayed by Leonardo, and the reasons of the commissioning. As mentioned above, the canvas was originally one third bigger than the current size and the hands most probably recalled the preparatory drawing preserved in Windsor.
A painting executed by Lorenzo di Credi - a student of Verrocchio, hence very close to Leondardo da Vinci - can helps us deplete the assumptions and gives us a better understanding of the circumstances of the painting: a wedding. From a physiognomic point of view, the two ladies present similar features however, this could be due to the mannerist style used by Lorenzo di Credi and inspired by the more talented Leonardo. It is though at the back of the painting, that we can find the final answer of our questions. With the help of a friend - Fabio Bianchetti, expert in heraldry - I researched over the anomaly in the emblem painted at the back of the canvas. This shows a geometrically shaped erosion in the bottom part, which curiously evokes the shields used in coats of arms. In the part that is still visible, as mentioned, there is no precise correspondence with the emblem of Bernardo Bembo, the reason why I strongly reject the claim that the lady in the portrait is Ginevra de’ Benci as assumed by scholars since today. The palm and the olive, instead leads us to the Sforza family, and precisely to the family branch from Pesaro. The small juniper branch and the Marche landscape of the Foglia Valley at the front of the painting, lead us to Ginevra Sforza, daughter of Alessandro the ruler of Pesaro, and brother of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan.
From a heraldic point of view, the palm and the olive are separat-ed in the Sforza’s family emblem. Therefore, the fact that, in the emblem painted at the back of the canvas, they are joined to form an Uroboros, suggest something that Lorenzo Di Credi’s painting clearly shows: a marriage. This would also explain the anomaly in the geometric erosion below Ginevra Sforza’s emblem. This would also point us to a crest which in this specific circumstance, is the family crest of her husband – Giovanni II Bentivoglio – also called Bencivoglio hence the name of Ginevra de’ Benci - a friend who was like a brother to Leonardo da Vinci; in fact, they were portrayed at least twice together in works by Benozzo Gozzoli (in Cappella dei Magi in Florence and in Sant'Agostino’s church in San Gimignano).
The two coats of arms would seem to be completed in the descrip-tion of that Uroboros represented by the olive branch and the palm leaf, the supreme expression of spiritual marriage, whose ring held at the tip of her fingers which is still a symbolic expres-sion in contemporary ritual gestures. Among other things, it should be noted that Ginevra Sforza di Alessandro was an illegitimate daughter, and details about the mother are unknown.
In this sense, it is perhaps important to note that in the direction dictated by the perspective view of the painting, on the right side, is Piagnano with its castle, inhabited during that period by Count Gianfrancesco Oliva, a man of arms associated with Leone Sforza, brother of Alessandro. In 1441, after Leone Sforza died in battle, Gianfrancesco Oliva married his widow Marsibilia Trinci. It is here where Alessandro's illegitimate daughter Ginevra, born in 1440, most likely grew up. Perhaps it is precisely for this reason that Leonardo paints Ginevra Sforza in Sassocorvaro, with the Valle del Foglia and Pia-gnano in the background: because it is here that Ginevra was raised. At this point, I would not exclude the possibility that Marsibilia Trinci was her mother, and that Gianfrancesco Oliva offered to raise the child in the Castello di Piagnano as a favor to the powerful Alessandro Sforza.
Marsibilia belonged to the powerful Trinci family of Foligno, while Alessandro Sforza was the son of Muzio Attendolo, ancestor of the Sforza family, and his mother was Lucia Terzani of Torgiano, a place not far from Foligno. Knowing how the "political" dynamics with which marriages and kingships were formed at the time I would not exclude the possibility that the choice to having Ginevra grow with a Trinci (assuming that she was not the natural mother) would find it fairly well founded. Perhaps this would help to clarify the only element that of this attribution which still does not find a reasonable location at the moment: the two bell towers on the right edge of the painting. It is said that where was once a fortification, called "barchetto", where today an industrial area occupies this part, but at the moment I cannot find documentation supporting this hy-pothesis, which, if confirmed, would give further clarification to everything described above.
I do not exclude the fact that the extremely sharp shape of the painted bell towers may even be an indication of the bride's Bolognese destination, which could also be traced to the "colombai" fortification that is visible in a bluish color, present in Mercatale but in a construction subsequent to the period in which the painting was created, so similar to the architecture's style used in Bologna at that time.
To further confirm my conclusions, consider the fact that the area is overflowing with junipers, the same that Leonardo represents in the work and even leaves his own imprint on. In the light of the above, all the anomalies in this painting become logical and lead us to Ginevra Sforza and her marriage to Giovanni II Bentivoglio in 1464, which was her second marriage, the first being with Sante, his cousin with whom she had had two children.
As for the reasons regarding a sort of censorship of the canvas, we can perhaps hypothesize that it was the disfigurement by someone who had an interest in eliminating the Bentivoglio coat of arms of this second wedding from the celebratory painting - perhaps it was unseemly to be associated to the Sforza family, or inappropriate in itself, but clearly we will never know for sure. Perhaps it is even plausible to think that the instigator of such a censorship may have been even Pope Giulio II, who had a particularly strong resentment towards Bentivoglio, so much so as to chase him out of Bologna in 1506.
In 1512, supported by Louis XII, Giulio II handed over the city of Pesaro to the Princess Della Rovere, his own family from Liguria. At the time, Pesaro housed a wellstocked library, commissioned by the Sforza family and also mentioned by Leonardo in the Manuscript L: “First day of August 1502 ... in Pesaro the bookshop”. With the library, the ducal palace of Pesaro also housed an important gallery, with works by Perugino, Mantegna and other important artists, which suffered a devastating fire in 1514.
We can hypothesize that the work suffered damage during that fire, as some claims, which could explain the reorganization of the size of the work (saving in this way a precious work of Leonardo), or did Giulio II find the painting in the well stocked Palazzo Ducale art gallery and decide to defame it in order to oust traces relating to Bentivoglio, then blaming the fire? It matters little. What matters is to give back the painting's correct representative dimension.