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Lady with an ermine. Cecilia Gallerani

Painting, 1480-th , 54.8×40.3 cm

Description of the artwork «Lady with an ermine. Cecilia Gallerani»

Some (reasonably?) believe that this particular picture is the best of all created by Leonardo da Vinci. It just was not lucky enough to become as famous as La Gioconda: it is not housed in the Louvre, it was not stolen, its disappearance was not mentioned on the front pages of all newspapers for several months.

It is curious that the Leonardo da Vinci’s authorship of the Lady with an Ermine has long been questioned, as well as the identity of the girl depicted on this canvas. Controversy on this topic periodically arise up to this day, when the technical means of the digital age allow us to research the picture from a new angle.

Now let’s rest upon the fact that the portrait depicts Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, who became the mother of his son Cesare. The artist made sure that as few details as possible distract the viewer from the young and fresh beauty of the model. Da Vinci portrayed her in a simple dress, and he left her only jewellery, the string of black pearls. Even Cecilia’s slicked-back hair seems to serve exactly this purpose (this hairstyle, with braids and tightly wrapped strands of hair, was fashioned by Isabella of Aragon and was called coazone). The half-turn image of the model was an innovation of Leonardo, before him portraits had been mostly stamped profiles. And even with this unusual pose, the artist managed to emphasize the character liveliness of the young model, which seems to be listening to an invisible interlocutor.

In her arms, Gallerani holds a white animal, which is considered to be an ermine. There are several interpretations of what exactly the animal symbolized. Traditionally, the “winter” white ermine was considered a symbol of purity; there was even a belief that it would rather die than allow to stain its snow-white fur. According to another version, the animal serves as a kind of allusion to the girl’s relationship with Ludovico Sforza, who in 1488 was admitted to the Order of the Ermine and included the animal in his coat of arms. In addition, there is an opinion that, being a great lover of riddles and codes, da Vinci used the ermine to encrypt the name of Gallerani on the canvas (in ancient Greek, the Mustelidae family was called “gale”).

The Milanese Muse
Cecilia Gallerani was born in 1473 into a large family that could not boast of either wealth or nobility. The girl had six brothers, with whom she studied languages. She spoke Latin fluently, sang and played musical instruments, wrote poetry. Her education and talent, combined with her pretty appearance, attracted the attention of Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed Il Moro; Gallerani’s father served him. Probably, it was the Duke of Milan that caused the breakup of Cecilia’s engagement with a certain Giovanni Stefano Visconti, to whom she was promised as a wife since the age of 10.

Gallerani became Sforza’s lover at the age of about 16—17. According to the testimonies of contemporaries, the girl accompanied the duke everywhere, he was sincerely attached to her and settled her in several rooms of his castle. Cecilia remained in the castle even after Sforza married Beatrice d'Este and Ludovico sometimes secretly visited the rooms of his mistress, who was pregnant with his child at that time. Naturally, all this could not hide from the attention of the duke’s legal wife; Beatrice was jealous of his rival and, in the end, forced him to break off their relations with Cecilia. After Gallerani gave birth to her son, Cesare, Sforza married her to the ruined Lodovico di Brambilla, Count of Bergamini, and presented her with a palace.

In the marriage, Cecilia gave birth to four more children and became a very popular figure in Milan thanks to the fact that she opened one of the first literary salons in Europe. The marriage did not affect the woman’s hobbies, she not only continued to write, but also began to gather philosophers, theologians and poets in her house, who called her their muse. Cecilia also appeared at the Sforza court, especially after the death of Ludovico’s wife in 1497. The former lover of the duke supported and took care of Il Moro after the loss, along with his new mistress Lucrezia Crivelli. Cecilia died at the age of 63, having survived both Ludovico Sforza and Leonardo da Vinci, who made her famous for centuries.

The attribution
The Lady with an Ermine painting has undergone two detailed laboratory studies, designed, in particular, to confirm the authorship of Leonardo da Vinci. The results of the first, conducted by Warsaw scientists, were published in 1955. The second study was carried out in 1992 along with restoration in the laboratories of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, led by art conservation specialist David Bull. The scientist was stunned by the skill of Leonardo, he later said that upon careful study of the picture, it seems that the artist began to paint his model from the skeleton, added flesh and clothing only after he understood the mechanics of her body.

The fact that the author of the Lady with the Ermine painting is precisely da Vinci is evidenced by several factors. First, there is a documentary evidence that the artist was familiar with Cecilia Gallerani (moreover, they were bound by a tender friendship) and painted her portrait. Secondly, Leonardo’s authorship is supported by the colour scheme of the picture, the play of light and shadow, as well as the three quarters turn of the model’s head. Thirdly, fingerprints typical of other works of the artist were found on the canvas. And, finally, according to the researchers, only da Vinci could depict a person with such amazing anatomical precision and detail at that time. Just look closely at Gallerani’s hand and see how carefully every nail and every wrinkle on her knuckles is painted.

Both studies confirmed that the background of the canvas was not painted over dark by da Vinci himself; particles of greyish-blue paint were found around the Cecilia’s figure under a layer of black paint. Polish scientists also found that the background was originally a window or some other source of natural light. It is still unknown when was the background of the painting painted and by whom exactly (according to some sources, Eugène Delacroix had a hand in this), since over the years of its existence it has been repeatedly overpainted and restored. But some features of the paint overlay suggest that the black background appeared between 1830 and 1870. The undoubtedly beautiful portrait has become a bit like a flat poster, unlike other works by Leonardo, famous, among other things, for the stunning detail of the landscapes in the background.

On the wooden base, traces of the so-called “cartoon” were found — a drawing from which the image was transferred to the wood using tiny holes and coal dust. The wood was covered with a thin layer of gesso and the underpainting was done with brown paint. In addition, the scholars determined that after the work on the painting was completed, the wooden plate was not cut around, as evidenced by narrow unpainted stripes on all four sides.

Was ever really an ermine?
Numerous studies of the Lady with an Ermine have shown that da Vinci himself copied it at least three times. In the first version of the picture, there was no ermine in the hands of Cecilia (as well as no blue cape on the girl’s shoulder, she only wore a red dress). In the next layer, the artist added an animal, but it was smaller and grey. At this point, doubts arise as to whether it is really an ermine, and not, for example, a domestic ferret (they were mainly of different shades of grey, while ermines wear reddish-brown fur in summer). After all, the place on the hands of Gallerani was taken by a white animal, and the picture began to appear everywhere as the Lady with an Ermine, even when the name of the subject was still in question for the researchers.

Although scientists still agreed on the personality of the lady depicted in this portrait, the species of the animal is still questioned. The reddish tint of its eyes suggests that this is an albino ferret. The fact is that in the Middle Ages and during the Early Renaissance, ferrets were tamed to hunt wild rabbits, and in some places — rats and mice. Ermines are less susceptible to domestication, moreover, their fate at that time was often much more sad: the snow-white winter skins of the animals were used to decorate the robes of noble people.

There is another, much less pleasant version: the animal in Cecilia’s hands is actually “flea fur”, a stuffed ermine used to catch pesky insects. Accessories like this came into vogue in the late Middle Ages and ranged from fur boas to fabulously expensive stuffed animals with gilded legs and heads. However, da Vinci, a vegetarian and animal lover, would hardly have depicted such an example of taxidermy art.

The secret life of Cecilia
Several centuries of the Lady with an Ermine painting’s existence are covered with a veil of secrecy. Around 1491, the painting left da Vinci’s studio and was kept by Gallerani for several years. In the spring of 1498, Isabella d’Este asked Cecilia to send her the work of da Vinci: “Recalling that Leonardo painted your portrait, we ask you to be so kind and send us your portrait with this messenger”. Although Gallerani admitted in her reply letter that she has changed a lot since then, still she could not refuse the high-ranking asker. You can imagine how disastrous this journey turned out to be for the picture, because hardly anyone took care of its safety. According to Washington researchers, da Vinci’s masterpiece made its journey of about 150 kilometers, in all likelihood, wrapped in cloth and leather and strapped to the messenger’s saddle. Presumably, a month later, the painting returned to its owner, but this is where its trail ends for three centuries.

It is difficult to imagine the further fate of the famous portrait, and how many relocations and overpaintings it underwent until the moment when in 1800 in Italy, it was acquired by the Polish prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. In all likelihood, soon after arriving in Poland, the painting was once again restored. Then the inscription “LA BELE FERONIERE. LEONARD DAWINCI” appeared, as Czartoryski believed that the portrait depicted the same woman as the Beautiful Ferroniera, although some researchers believe that in fact it was Lucrezia Crivelli). During the 19th century, the Lady with an Ermine moved around Europe several times: Princess Czartoryska managed to save the painting before the invasion of the Russian army in 1830, later it was sent to Dresden, and then to Paris, to the famous Hotel Lambert mansion, where the Czartoryski family lived.

Cecilia Gallerani returned to Krakow in 1882, but her misfortunes did not end there. Almost immediately after the occupation of Poland by the Germans in 1939, the work fell into the hands of the Nazis and was transported to Berlin. A year later, the Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank became the owner of the Lady with an Ermine. At the end of World War II, the painting was discovered in his abandoned summer residence in Bavaria and returned to Poland. Now the Lady with an Ermine painting is in Krakow in the Czartoryski Museum.

Written by Yevgheniia Sidelnikova





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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Portrait

Style of art: Renaissance

Technique: Oil, Tempera

Materials: Wood

Date of creation: 1480-th

Size: 54.8×40.3 cm

Artwork in selections: 169 selections