At National Gallery of Art, a 15th-century Florentine bride captivates young visitors


Room shots featuring Leonardo da Vinci's ‘Ginevra de' Benci [obverse],’ c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington/National Gallery of Art, Washington)
July 14, 2012

‘It’s not a he, it’s a she,” says a bow-bedecked 4-year-old running up to the Renoir.

“Not so close!” her mother warns. “That’s what the lady was talking about. No touching, move forward.”

The child jumps away from “Girl With a Basket of Oranges,” sticking the landing with gymnastic precision.

Phew.

Her curls whisk around as she turns and stares big-eyed into that spring on canvas.


Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Ginevra de' Benci [obverse],’ c. 1474/1478, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

“She looks like me!” the child shrieks as the mother snaps the point-and-shoot.

Photo taken. Next painting. The girl runs ahead to the British masterworks. Exhausted adult feet follow.

It is Tuesday, and it is tourist season. The National Gallery of Art is bursting with onlookers carrying stuffed animals. High-pitched whines and the screeches of shoes on marble announce the arrival of wunderkinds, all wonderful for their focus. They are tired, these children, after hours of Metro and monument traversing. But the gallery is a refuge, an oasis of air-conditioning and blue velvet settees, a comfortable place to imbibe must-sees before trekking back out into the day’s mild humidity.

“Between 5,000 and 6,000 children and their families visit the gallery over the summer through three different programs,” says Elizabeth Diament, museum educator at the National Gallery of Art.

While the gallery has its beloved children’s tour, many tourists make their own way through the centuries. And unbeknown to the kids, they’re here for one painting, one glowing, petulant face plastered on the maps their parents carry:

Ginevra.

The only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere.

She’s upstairs waiting, flanked by portraits of Florentine boys nobody notices.

In this octagonal room of Lippis and Botticellis, portraits of young men in regalia pale in the presence of the very pale Ginevra. This bold bride of 15th-century Florence may have done little in her short life except marry and pose for a 22-year-old Leonardo. But that’s no matter. “Ginevra de’ Benci” still captivates admirers, even while lacking the beguiling expression of her more famous sister-in-oil, “Mona Lisa.”

“She was probably anemic,” a teen deduces before losing interest.

“Her skin is luminescent!” a girl says to her father.

“Woooooow,” another child concludes.

Bless kids. They say the most honest things.

Because “wow” is the right response to this early foray into naturalism, to this wedding portrait of a 16-year-old bride who somehow emotes nothing.

We don’t know what she feels, just how we feel about her: Virtutem Forma Decorat! “Beauty Adorns Virtue,” her backside says, signifying that this stoic creature’s value lies in the virginity she’s preparing to lose. It’s fitting that Leonardo immortalizes Ginevra in the juniper bush, the chastity plant, apathetic to what’s in front of her.

A family of six — with four children under 6 — excitedly approaches Ginevra. The oldest daughter, Veronica Kushner, 6, stares up at her.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Jennifer Kushner says to her brood.

Who painted this?

“Leonardo da Vinci,” Veronica responds. “He painted the Mona Lisa, too.”

“And how long do you think it took to paint this?” the mother asks.

“Two days,” Veronica guesses, fully aware that Leonardo was a prodigy. She knows how he studied flight and anatomy, that he was particularly interested in “human noses.”

“They love art,” Kushner says of her children. She home-schools the older ones in Bradford, R.I., using children’s art books to teach them about the works they’re seeing today for the first time. “We read so much about the artists . . . they are really like their heroes.”

This is the Kushner family’s first visit to the gallery and to Washington, and the children show no signs of tiring. The parents, though, each with one child strapped on their back or breast, seem in need of an afternoon nap.

“It’s tough,” Kushner says of taking four children to the gallery. “But I’m used to watching them alone. It’s so nice to have my husband here with me.”

As the family exits, Felicity, 5, lags behind to stare at that cold woman on the wall. “She’s still looking at me,” Felicity whispers, walking backwards into the next hall. “Her eyes, she’s still looking!” Ginevra stares beyond her.

Others come in, snapping and sighing and commenting. Some text friends. A few make dinner plans: “I’ve heard the ‘Top Chef’ restaurant is somewhere around here.”

Ginevra sits dutifully, accepting admiration and ambivalence, gazing through the tourists who shuffle by.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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