“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci
“Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani. It was painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the Duke’s service.
Gallerani is painted at a three-quarter angle toward her right, but with her face turned toward her left. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of Da Vinci’s many innovations. Her gaze is directed toward a “third party” beyond the picture’s frame. Gallerani holds a small white-coated short-tailed weasel, known as an ermine. Her dress is comparatively simple, indicating that she is not a noblewoman. Her coiffure confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of it bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads and a black band.
Gallerani was a member of a large family that was not wealthy or noble. Her father served for a time at the Duke’s court. When her portrait was painted, she was about 16 years old and was renowned for her beauty, scholarship, and poetry. She was previously married at about age six to a young nobleman of the house of Visconti, but the betrothal was broken off in 1487 for unknown reasons. Cecilia Gallerani then became the Duke’s mistress and bore him a son. Cecilia spoke Latin fluently and was said to be a gifted musician and singer. She also wrote poetry. In about 1489, she sat for Ludovico’s court artist and engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, who painted this famous portrait.
Even after Ludovico married Beatrice d’Este, Cecilia continued to keep her apartments in Ludovico’s castle. She had a son, Cesare, on in 1491 by Ludovico Sforza. Beatrice was promised to the Duke when she was only five and married him when she was 16 in 1491. After a few months, she discovered the Duke was still seeing Gallerani and forced the Duke to end the relationship by having her married to a local count named Bergamino. Cesare, the son of Cecilia and Ludovico Sforza, was made abbot of the Church of San Nazaro Maggiore of Milan in 1498; in 1505, he became the canon of Milan.
This painting is one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa, Ginevra de’ Benci, and La belle ferronnière. It is a small portrait that was painted in oils on a wooden panel. Oil paint was relatively new to Italy at the time, having been introduced in the 1470s. This work demonstrates Leonardo’s expertise in painting human anatomy. Cecelia’s hand was painted in great detail. Da Vinci painted every contour of her fingernails, and each skin wrinkle around her knuckles. Unfortunately, an unknown restorer repainted them, and the original background was overlaid by a solid dark clour probably in the 17th century. Also, the transparent veil worn by Gallerani was repainted to match the color of her hair, for unknown reasons.
There are several interpretations of the ermine’s significance. In its winter coat, the ermine was a traditional symbol of purity, as it was believed it would face death rather than soil its white coat. Leonardo recorded:
“The ermine … would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.”
Ermines were kept as pets by the aristocracy. Ermine white pelts were also used to line or trim aristocratic garments. For Ludovico, the ermine had a further personal significance as it was used as a personal emblem. The association of the ermine with Cecilia Gallerani could have referred both to her purity and to make an association with her lover. Given the association of weasels and pregnancy in Italian Renaissance culture, it also is possible the animal was a symbol of Cecilia’s pregnancy.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, scientist and engineer who was already famous in his lifetime and is today considered a genius. Leonardo’s masterpiece had considerable influence during his lifetime and continued to influence and attract lovers of history and art in our life.
Historians regard Leonardo as the prime example of the “Universal Genius” or “Renaissance Man.” He was an individual of unsatisfied curiosity and creative imagination. Da Vinci is considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived.
Leonardo was born out of wedlock to notary Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman named Caterina in Vinci in the region of Florence. He was educated in the studio of Florentine painter Andrea del Verrocchio. Much of his earlier working life was spent in the service of Ludovico il Moro in Milan. He later worked in Rome, Bologna, and Venice, and he spent his last years in France at the home awarded to him by Francis I of France.
Lady with an Ermine
- Title: Lady with an Ermine
- Italian: Dama con l’ermellino
- Polish: Dama z gronostajem
- Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
- Created: 1489–90
- Periods: High Renaissance
- Media: Oil on wood panel
- Dimensions: 54 cm × 39 cm (21 in × 15 in)
- Museum: National Museum and Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland
Leonardo da Vinci
- Name: Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci
- Born: 1452 – Vinci, Republic of Florence (present-day Italy)
- Died: 1519 (aged 67) – Amboise, Kingdom of France
- Movement: High Renaissance
- Recent scientific investigations suggest the Ermine was a later addition.
- Multi-Lens camera techniques show that Leonardo da Vinci experimented before finalizing his compositions.
- One of only four women’s portraits painted by Leonardo da Vinci.
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“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt,
and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit 1) Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain]