In the winter of 1967, a customer walked into a luggage store in Pittsburgh in search of a bag of a certain size and composition. The suitcase was destined for a transatlantic flight, but before that flight, it had to be altered to accommodate a specially built device designed to serve a special passenger.
Ginevra de’ Benci was born in 1457 in Florence and was known for her beauty and her poetry. Her admirers included the Venetian ambassador. Some said Ginevra broke his heart and it was he who commissioned the striking portrait of her, her smooth face inscrutable, her body turned just so. Or perhaps the oil painting was commissioned by Luigi de Bernardo Niccolini, a wedding present from the man she married at the age of 16.
The word “Liechtenstein” means “light stone” and comes from the composition of the original home of the European country’s ruling family: a limestone castle built in the 12th century. That castle is not in Liechtenstein, but in what is today Austria. The Liechtenstein we know dates its formation to the 18th century. It is tiny and landlocked, bordered by Austria and Switzerland. Population: 37,000.
It was vital that from the outside the suitcase appear unremarkable, the sort of thing a typical businessman would carry. The Pittsburgh customer selected a gray, hard-sided American Tourister case known as a “3-suiter” and examined it carefully. It would do quite nicely.
The bag was purchased for $52.95 and then taken to a laboratory just north of Pittsburgh’s botanical gardens where the retrofitting would begin.
Ginevra and Niccolini were members of the Florentine elite, a group that included bankers, traders and merchants. And yet by 1480, Niccolini was in debt. Ginevra, he said, had repeatedly been “in the hands of the doctors.” He died in 1505. His widow died about 1520. They had no children. The portrait seemed to disappear.
The princes of Liechtenstein continued to live in their Austrian castle. They filled it with artwork: masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck and others. To show ownership, the backs of works were imprinted with a red wax seal bearing the House of Liechtenstein’s coat of arms: a complicated design including a crowned eagle, a black eagle with the head of a woman and a hunting horn. By 1733, the seal had been applied to the back of a poplar panel about 15 inches square. It was the portrait of Ginevra.
From Pittsburgh, the American Tourister suitcase traveled to Zurich and then to Liechtenstein. The turmoil of the Second World War had robbed the prince of Liechtenstein of much of the family’s territory and much of its wealth. A painting, however, could be worth its weight in gold.
Ginevra had been through so much. She had been spirited across Europe, from Vienna to Salzburg to a monastery in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. To keep her out of the hands of the Nazis, the aristocratic Ginevra had been described in one bill of lading as “household goods.”
Eventually, the treasures from the House of Liechtenstein were moved from Austria to the family castle in Vaduz, the capital of the tiny country. And there, in a stone wine cellar accessible via a trap door set in the floor, Ginevra waited, hanging from a nail in the wall. She captivated her occasional visitors. Wrote one: “Her pallid beauty seemed to irradiate the dusty room with a strange lunar light.”
Through the trapdoor and down the stairs went the man with the American Tourister suitcase. The lining of the valise had been replaced with Styrofoam designed to act like a Thermos, safeguarding whatever was inside from the atmospheric conditions outside. The suitcase was fitted with a gauge that showed the temperature and humidity.
The suitcase was opened. Ginevra went inside. The suitcase was clicked shut.
Secrecy was paramount, and for several days in a row, three first-class seats had been booked on Swissair Flight 100 from Zurich to New York — one seat for Ginevra, two for her traveling partners. With the painting finally in hand, a cryptic cable was sent from Switzerland to Washington: “Bird flies.”
The announcement on Feb. 20, 1967, was front-page news around the world: The National Gallery of Art in Washington was the new owner of “Ginevra de’ Benci,” the masterpiece by the painter of the Mona Lisa and now the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci outside of Europe.
In deference to Prince Franz Josef II, the price was never officially revealed. But word soon spread that it had cost the National Gallery $5 million, at the time the most ever paid for a work of art.
American Tourister took out an ad in the New York Times that read: “This $5,000,000 da Vinci masterpiece flew the Atlantic in American Tourister luggage. Isn’t this the kind of luggage you should travel with?”
You can visit Ginevra in Gallery 6 on the main floor of the West Building. It won’t cost you a penny.
Thanks to Nancy Yeide, the head of curatorial records at the National Gallery, for helping re-create Ginevra’s travels. On Aug. 30 and 31, senior lecturer Eric Denker will give free gallery talks on the painting. Meet at noon in the West Building Rotunda.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.