Leonardo da Vinci's 'Study of Hands'

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hands, 1474. Silverpoint and white highlights on pink prepared paper. 8.43 x 5.91 in. Royal Library, Windsor, UK. Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful sketch of three hands is in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle exemplifies Leonardo da Vinci's intense attention to, even fascination with, anatomical correctness and the effects of light and shadow.

At the bottom, one hand is folded underneath another, more developed one, as if resting in a lap. That lightly-sketched hand seems to be the ghost of the top hand, which holds a sprig of some sort of plant–the outline of the thumb is nearly identical. These two highly developed hands are worked up with dark cross-hatchings and white chalk highlights, creating a sense of mass even on a sheet of paper.

In each, everything from the muscles of thumb-pads to the wrinkles of skin along the joints of the fingers is depicted with the utmost care. Even when Leonardo lightly sketches the rest of the forearm or the "ghost" hand, his lines are deft and confident, showing how much he strove to depict the human form correctly.

A Preliminary Study?

Although the first instance of his studies of anatomy and dissection is not until 1489, in the Windsor manuscript B, his interest in the subject would no doubt have been bubbling just beneath the surface, and it is certainly evident in this sketch. Leonardo seemed to draw his ideas and notes as they came to him, and in this vein, we also see a lightly sketched head of an old man in the upper left corner; perhaps one of those quick caricatures of a man whose peculiar features struck him as he passed.

Many scholars take this sketch as a preliminary study for The Portrait of a Lady, who could very possibly be the famous Renaissance beauty Ginevra de' Benci, in the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. Although art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) tells us that Leonardo did indeed create a portrait of Ginevra—"an extremely beautiful painting," he tells us—there is no outright evidence that she is, indeed, a portrait of Ginevra. Additionally, while there is clear evidence that the portrait had been cut down, there is no further documentation or other drawings that would definitively allow us to say that these hands are hers. Nevertheless, the National Gallery has created a composite image of the sketch and the portrait.

Is it Ginevra de' Benci?

Ginevra de' Benci was an important Renaissance figure, and John Walker of the National Galler has argued convincingly that she is the subject of Leonardo's portrait. Born about 1458 into an extremely wealthy and well-connected Florentine family, Ginevra was a talented poet and friends with the foremost Renaissance patron Lorenzo de' Medici (1469–1492).

If this is indeed Ginevra, the portrait is further complicated by its patron. While it could have possibly been commissioned in celebration of her marriage to Luigi Niccolini, there is also a possibility that it was commissioned by her possibly platonic lover Bernardo Bembo. Indeed, no less than three poets, including the aforementioned Lorenzo de' Medici himself, wrote of their affair. There is another sketch dubiously attached to the Ginevra portrait, Young Woman Seated in a Landscape with a Unicorn, in the Ashmolean Museum; the unicorn's presence, like the credo on the verso of the painting ("beauty adorns virtue"), speak to her innocence and virtue.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Giorgio Vasari, "The Life of Leonardo da Vinci, Florentine Painter and Sculptor," The Lives of the Artists, trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 293.
  • Walker, John. "Ginevra de' Benci by Leonardo da Vinci." Report & Studies in the History of Art. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1969: 1-22.
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Kelly, Alexander J. Noelle & Chelsea Emelie. "Leonardo da Vinci's 'Study of Hands'." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/leonardo-da-vincis-study-of-hands-183299. Kelly, Alexander J. Noelle & Chelsea Emelie. (2023, April 5). Leonardo da Vinci's 'Study of Hands'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/leonardo-da-vincis-study-of-hands-183299 Kelly, Alexander J. Noelle & Chelsea Emelie. "Leonardo da Vinci's 'Study of Hands'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/leonardo-da-vincis-study-of-hands-183299 (accessed June 9, 2023).