The ambiguity of motif

Image: Ginevra de’ Benci is a portrait painting by Leonardo da Vinci of the 15th-century Florentine aristocrat Ginevra de’ Benci (born c.  1458). It is the only painting by Leonardo on public view in the Americas

From Wikipedia:

“…Ginevra de’ Benci, a well-known young Florentine woman, is universally considered to be the portrait’s sitter. Leonardo painted the portrait in Florence between 1474 and 1478, possibly to commemorate Ginevra’s marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini at the age of 16. More likely, it commemorates the engagement. Commonly, contemporary portraits of females were commissioned for either of two occasions: betrothal or marriage. Wedding portraits traditionally were created in pairs, with the woman on the right, facing left; since this portrait faces right, it more likely represents betrothal.

The juniper bush that surrounds Ginevra’s head and fills much of the background, serves more than mere decorative purposes. In Renaissance Italy, the juniper was regarded a symbol of female virtue, while the Italian word for juniper, ginepro, also makes a play on Ginevra’s name.

The imagery and text on the reverse of the panel—a juniper sprig encircled by a wreath of laurel and palm, memorialized by the Latin motto Virtvtem Forma Decorat (“Beauty adorns virtue”)—further support the identification of the portrait. The phrase is understood as symbolizing the intricate relationship between Ginevra’s intellectual and moral virtue on the one hand, and her physical beauty on the other. The sprig of juniper, encircled by laurel and palm, suggests her name. The laurel and palm are in the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, a Venetian ambassador to Florence whose platonic relationship with Ginevra is revealed in poems exchanged between them. Infrared examination has revealed Bembo’s motto “Virtue and Honor” beneath Ginevra’s, making it likely that Bembo was somehow involved in the commission of the portrait.

In 2017, the researcher and cryptographer Carla Glori anagrammatized fifty Latin sentences signed VINCI, formed with the very same alphabetical letters of the motto when supplemented with the Latin word iuniperus (juniper [sprig]). Glori argues that the anagrams form a coherent text and have a meaning that unequivocally refers to the portrait and to the biography of Ginevra Benci.”

Kristen Lee Over writes at

“George Steiner has described culture as a matrix of recurrent and interrelated elements, a motor fueled by revolving constants. Broadly speaking, cultural literacy relies on our ability to recognize these constants—in literature, music, painting, or any other form of cultural production—and to work out relationships between them, to translate and recycle the meaning we inherit from them. Thus, the single word Roncevaux, voiced offhandedly by one man to another in Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises, can echo for the reader with large themes of betrayal, ambush, rivalry, and national loss—but only if the word is recognized as an allusion to the death trap set treacherously for Charlemagne‘s twelve peers in the early-twelfth-century Chanson de Roland. The tone of Steiner’s short reflection on cultural literacy is dire, his main point being that “elementary” allusions and “implicit motifs”—such as Roncevaux—go unrecognized even by today’s most “privileged students and readers.” A small literary element like Roncevaux, reused over time in various languages and genres, provides a useful example of a cultural “constant,” and recognizing the rich depth afforded by such recycled bits of meaning is in fact a method of comparative literary analysis. Motifis one word that can be used to delimit and distinguish an element like Roncevaux. But our options are many, and terms prove in practice frequently interchangeable. Steiner writes generally of topologies, a term that lumps together and encompasses such overlapping concepts as topos, archetype, motif, and genre. Our focus here is on the motif and limits the cultural field to literature. And yet Steiner’s more expansive notion of culture as a network of recurring, interrelated constants provides one of the more helpful and lucid introductions to the movement and persistence associated with literary motif, an otherwise ambiguous element in comparative analysis.

Let us start with the ambiguity that has characterized motif since the term first appeared—used in reference to a musical rather than a literary work—in Denis Diderot‘s Encyclopédie of 1765. Even now, defining exactly what constitutes a single motif or a motif sequence in literature continues to be a thorny task for students and scholars alike, in large part because published definitions as well as general use in literary criticism offer very little agreement as to its nature (excepting a general agreement that there is no common agreement). Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks have defined motif variously as myth, theme, subject, central recurring idea, image, characteristic, symbol, archetype, leitmotiv, or outstanding trait. Adding to the confusion, theme and motif —potentially incompatible terms to Horst Daemmrich—tend to be used interchangeably, strings of motifs often made synonymous with legend and myth…”

Jesse Strickland shuns ambiguity…

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