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Lady with an Ermine

A Face that shaped Art and History


Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) eternal beauty and her white predator, resting on her large left hand, look back to the right onto a lively past. Cecilia Gallerani was born in Milan in 1473. An intelligent and educated woman who could speak Latin, write poems, and converse about philosophy and theology alike. At the start of 1489, the 16-year-old donna docta attracted the attention of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), also known as ‘The Moor’ due to his dark skin. However, their liaison was short-lived, as he was promised to another woman. On 18 January 1491, he married Beatrice (1475-1497), the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole I. d’Este. Not four months had passed before Cesare, Cecilia and Ludovico’s son, was born. As a present, Sforza gave her the painting painted by Da Vinci as well as the Palazzo C a r m a g n o l a estate, so she wouldn’t have to give up the life she’d been accustomed to upon leaving the court of Milan. The ‘Moor’ also found his paramour a husband. In June 1492, she married Count Ludovico Carminati de Brambilla, who went by the name of Bergamini. Countess Cecilia Bergamini survived everyone in her immediate (and not so immediate) circle: her rival, Beatrice, her love, her husband, her five children and Leonardo da Vinci. She passed away in her castle, San Giovanni I Croce near Cremona, in 1536 at the age of 63.

The rest of the world caught a glimpse of Cecilia Gallerani’s portrait only nearly three centuries later: the portrait has now been insured for 300 million Euros and placed inside a case protected by twelve millimetres of bulletproof glass. Nobody knows who the painting belonged to after her death. Lady with an Ermine only reappeared in 1800. The portrait was probably purchased by Adam Jerzy Fürst Czartoryski (1770–1861) in Italy. The polish prince gave it as a present to his mother Izabela (1746–1835), who wanted to curate an art collection at her residence in Puławy, near Lublin.

The princess compared the portrait with another painted by da Vinci, depicting the woman loved by Francis I of France (1494–1547), Madame Féron, titled La Belle Ferronière. Izabela came to the conclusion that the two represented people were one and the same. She commissioned someone to write ‘La Belle Ferronière – Leonardo da Winci’ on the top left corner, an unmistakable signature persisting to this very day. And yet that wasn’t enough. She also ordered the painting to be ‘improved’. The original limned blue-green background was covered with black paint. The pearl necklace, the headband and the pattern on the dress were covered with a thick layer of colour, the cheeks of the lady were ‘powdered’ to give her a rosy complexion, the contours of the nose, eyebrows, and hair were also improved, the pupils were painted dark brown. By doing so, da Vinci’s signature sfumato was lost. The portrait was housed until 1830 at the Czartoryski Residence in Puławy. When the November Revolts failed, the Russians stormed the Czartoryski properties and it was taken to Paris in 1831. After more than 30 years, Lady with an Ermine returned to Poland and was one of the masterpieces exhibited on 1 December 1876 on occasion of the opening of the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. It’s only at the start of the 20th century that the portrait was identified as the likeness of Cecilia Gallerani: her name, in part, held an important clue to her identity, as the ancient Greek word for ermine is galée (ermine). Historians also discovered how Ludovico Sforza was bestowed the title of the Ermine Order by King Ferdinand of Naples in 1488, which meant the Moor acquired the epithet ‘White Ermine’. The ermine on Cecilia’s portrait is clearly an allegory to her beloved.

During the 20th century, Lady with an Ermine succumbed to the turmoil of history. During the Great War, the portrait was stored at the Painting Gallery in Dresden; only in 1920 did it return to Krakow. In 1939, it was seized by German occupiers, taken to Berlin and placed in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum. Despite being earmarked for the collection of the planned ‘Führer Museum’ in Linz, Hans Frank, leader of the General Government in occupied Poland, who lived in the former seat of the Polish Royalty in Krakow, snaffled the Lady. In January 1945, he took her, together with other artistic war booty, when fleeing the Red Army. On 4 May 1945, Frank was arrested by American soldiers in Neuhaus am Schliersee in Bavaria and sentenced to death during the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. In 1946 Lady with an Ermine returned to Poland. The picture of art historian Dr Karol Estreicher (1906-1984), who headed the Committee of Art Restitution of the Polish government exiled in London, presented the saved painting at the train station of Krakow and made the headlines. The Republic of Poland did not nationalise the Czartoryski collection, and so the painting was assigned to the National Museum in Krakaw.

The portrait travelled only once during this period: in 1972 it was shown at the Puschkin Museum in Moscow. In 1991, a new turbulent era started for the Lady: the Czartoryski collection was handed over to the Czartoryski Family, represented by Adam Karol Prinz Czartoryski Bórbon, born in 1940 in Sevilla. Until 2012, the valuable painting travelled around the world and, since then can be found in the former Polish capital. After being exhibited in Wawel, it moved to the National Museum in Krakow on 19 May 2017, where the small portrait now hangs in a spacious room all for itself. Only 28 people can admire it at once. Taking a picture of the original is forbidden, but visitors don’t have to give up on the snapping action: there’s a corner with a reproduction of the art icon where, next to funny slogans and a cardboard ermine, visitors will find all they need for a selfie that will last for eternity.

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1954 in Warschau geboren, studierte Germanistik und Romanistik an der Universität Bukarest und Warschau. Sie lebt seit 1986 in Deutschland, zuletzt in Berlin. Journalistin, Übersetzerin und Kuratorin, arbeitet als freie Kunstpublizistin mit polnischen und deutschsprachigen Medien zusammen.


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