Proverbs 31:10–31 is an acrostic, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Like the painting we see here, the ‘perfection’ of this highly crafted poetic form suits its purpose: the construction of a certain ideal.
In 1486, the beautiful Giovanna degli Albizzi, aged 18, married Lorenzo Tornabuoni, the son of a wealthy Florentine merchant banker. A year later, on 11 October 1487, Giovanna gave birth to a son and heir, fulfilling the ‘expected duty’ of a noble wife in Renaissance Florence, both to husband and the ruling elite of the City Republic. Within another year, however, the young Giovanna had died from complications associated with a second pregnancy. She was buried in Santa Maria Novella in October 1488.
Lorenzo was distraught and commissioned many memorials to his wife, including this portrait by Ghirlandaio, the ‘go-to’ portraitist of rich Florentine families at the time. A slip of paper attached to the wall bears an epigram by the ancient Roman poet Martial, ‘Art, if only you were able to portray character and soul, no painting on earth would be more beautiful’. Ghirlandaio accepts the neo-Platonic challenge of the epigram by making a painting that seeks to portray inner beauty through (and in addition to) outward beauty.
Giovanna’s identity as Lorenzo’s wife is prominently displayed in the embroidery of her silk brocade robe, which has ‘L’ motifs, together with other emblems of the Tornabuoni family. The profile format associates her with classical portraiture and accentuates her domed forehead, high hairline, and elongated neck. Giovanna’s moral virtue is conveyed by her upright pose and the prayer book on the shelf behind her, where we also see her virtue as a mother reflected in a string of coral beads, often used as a protective talisman for infants, and a dragon pendant that refers to St Margaret, patron saint of childbirth. This pendant, as well as the necklace worn by Giovanna, both feature large rubies that display the wealth of the Tornabuoni family, and recall the opening line of the acrostic poem in Proverbs 31:10, ‘A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’.
Brown, David Alan (ed.). 2001. Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra De’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Simons, Patricia. 1992. ‘Women in Frames. The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture’, in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, ed. by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Westview), pp. 38–57
Weppelmann, Stefan. 2011. ‘Some Thoughts on Likeness in Italian Early Renaissance Portraits’, in The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini, ed. by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 67–69
10A good wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from afar.
15She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her maidens.
16She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17She girds her loins with strength
and makes her arms strong.
18She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
22She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23Her husband is known in the gates,
when he sits among the elders of the land.
24She makes linen garments and sells them;
she delivers girdles to the merchant.
25Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.