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 Diana Billings Art Blog


Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci has been a favourite artist of mine since I was a child. This was was an easy choice to write about. The tougher part was which painting to choose. I have chosen this particular painting because it has a rich history. I am only going to write about half of the information that is available on this painting. I will list a few resources at the end, in case you would like to find out more about the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani.

The portrait was commissioned by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza in 1489. Leonardo was under the patronage of the very generous Duke. The reason for the commission was that Cecilia was the favourite mistress of Ludovico.

The painting itself is in excellent condition considering the age and what is has been through. The are are a few really interesting things I find about the painting. You can still see evidence of the original sketch by Leonardo call Spoloero, on her face, right hand and arm, left hand and bridge of her nose. Her face and other flesh areas have a large build up of paint- not surprising as Leonardo was known for layering with glazes, in order to create depth in a painting. This technique can also be seen in the Mona Lisa. Finger prints have been found on her face and the ermines head. These are thought to be da Vinci’s. The background was originally a harmonious shade of grey-blue. Later the background was painted a darker colour. There is also the idea there may have been an open window on the right hand side. The inscription on the top left is thought to have been added in the early 19th century. The body positioning of Cecilia Gallerani is not typical of the period. Her body sitting to the left with her head turned and gazing to the right, creating a sense of movement in the painting. The fact that her hand and the ermine are also facing the same direction, lead us to believe she was looking at or toward something.

The meaning of the ermine has two representations. Cecilia’s surname Gallerani is reminiscent of the Greek word for ermine “Galii”. The ermine was also the symbol of purity and moderation. The ermine, according to legend, abhorred dirt and only ate once a day. The legend also says that the ermine would rather die than sully its fur. Leonardo wrote about this in his studies of animal allegories. Towards the end of the 1480’s Ludovice Sforza adopted the ermine as part of the family emblem.

There was a sonnet published in1493, in which the painting was described by court poet Bernardo Bellincioni. This makes me wonder if Gallerani and the painting were admired. It is believed the painting remained in the possession of Cecilia Gallerani until her death in 1536.

After Cecilia’s death the painting moved around through a few different hands. 1612 it was in Prague, with Rudulf II. In the late 18th century Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski purchased the painting in Italy for his mother. The portrait was known to remain in the hands of the Czartoryski Princes until it went on public diplay in Krakow from 1882 to 1914. During World War I it was moved to Dresden dor protection, then back to Krakow in 1920. In 1939 is was in possession of the Nazi’s and taken to Berlin. The painting was to earmarked for the “Fuhrer’s” Museum. Finally the portrait was liberated in 1946 and sent back to Krakow.

Since its liberation from the Nazi’s the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani has traveled to many exhibitions around the world. It is now in Krakow. This is a short version story of this painting. There is much more information about the adventures and history of this painting. I encourage you to investigate further. I have provided some links below for you to read more if you wish.

I have to give much credit for my information from the publication of “ Leonardo da Vince” The Complete Paintings, by Frank Zollner. Published by Taschen 2006.

Portrait of Cecilla Gallerani (Lady with an Ermine) 1489/90

By Leonardo da Vince

Oil paint on walnut panel 55cm x 40.5cm

Krakow, Muzeum Narodowe

Czartoryski Collection

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