Ginevra’s Story – film review

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 Somerset-Ward, 
     narrated by Meryl Streep
Released by Microcinema International
4 stars

DVD cover Ginevra’s StoryUsing X-rays to literally delve beneath the surface of this mysterious portrait, Christopher Swann’s 1999 documentary is a fascinating examination of a beautiful painting.

One of only three portraits of women by Leonardo da Vinci, the subject of the painting was the 16-year-old Ginevra de Benci, a member of a wealthy family. The portrait may have been Leonardo’s first commission; he is thought to have been 22 when he painted it in 1474. The picture hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. – or, rather, the upper half of the painting hangs there.

For at some point in its past, the picture was mutilated: the bottom half was cut away, so that Ginevra is portrayed only from about mid-bust upwards. Ginevra’s Story shows how art historians, using computer-aided design technology, reconstructed the bottom third of the painting. The reconstruction is based on sketches of Ginevra’s hands in the Windsor Castle art collection, and on comparison with Ginevra’s “sisters,” the Mona Lisa and the “Lady with an Ermine.”

The documentary also shows how the painting was restored. The varnish Leonardo applied to the surface of the painting had yellowed over the centuries, considerably dulling its colors. Before and after images show how Leonardo was, already at 22, a master of shading and subtle detail. And X-ray and infrared reflectography delve beneath the surface of the painting to reveal Leonardo’s preparations for the picture.

Like all of da Vinci’s women, Ginevra is enigmatic. This girl, especially, is austerely so: her pale skin, far away eyes, and sad expression make her appear as if she were resigned to a life without joy. In fact, she was likely a very expressive poet (though none of her work survives), and was the muse to the poet and Venetian diplomat Bernardo Bembo who courted her with knightly, platonic devotion that was the custom in Florence in her day. But, too, she was married to a much older man whom she may not have loved, so life may indeed have been sad for her.

Narrated by Meryl Streep (in English) or Isabella Rosilini (in Italian), Ginevra’s Story is highly recommended for art lovers and educators.

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