A s the world marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci's death, we revisit one of the Italian master’s most beguiling works, The Lady with an Ermine, also known as Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani. This portrait of the 15th-century mistress of the Duke of Milan is dense with meanings and symbols – not least the eponymous ermine – and compositionally elaborate. It was also a precursor to the Mona Lisa in how it portrayed a woman’s mystique in an elegant manner.
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One of the painting’s most curious aspects is the repetition between woman and beast: in its pallor and pointed features the ermine delivers a mirror image of its owner, although its musculature clearly marks its out as male. More literal layers of obfuscation are created by the transparent veils draped over Cecilia’s head. It is a picture shrouded in mystery.
The walnut board used for The Lady with an Ermine is believed to have been cut from the same tree as the supporting panel for Leonardo’s La belle ferronière, now in the Louvre. Four extant Leonardo portraits of female subjects remain, of which those are two. The others are the Mona Lisa and a portrait of the Florentine aristocrat Ginevra de’ Benci. All are – in their various ways – studies of unreadable women.
In 2011 the work caused a sensation when it was the star of the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The Telegraph suggested that The Lady with an Ermine is “simply so perfect it will eclipse his Mona Lisa as the world’s favourite painting”. The show’s curator Luke Syson, called the work “the crown jewel of [da Vinci’s] very, very small surviving oeuvre”. It was, he said, “one of the great milestones in the history of art.” In 2016, the painting was gifted to Poland's Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and since 2017 it has been exhibited in the National Museum in Krakow.
The ermine cradled in the arms of Cecilia Gallerani illustrates Leonardo’s persistent interest in, and affinity for, animals: both the power and intricacy of their anatomies and their emblematic force. He sketched galloping horses, the gait of a bear, dogs’ paws and birds in flight. The Renaissance master was something of a modern man in that he was vocal on the subject of animal rights, and it is thought he was a committed vegetarian. “My body will not be a tomb for other creatures,” da Vinci wrote. The art historian, and Leonardo’s near contemporary, Giorgio Vasari claimed that da Vinci even bought caged birds solely for the joy of releasing them.
Major works by Leonardo are almost unheard of at auction. However, two exceptionally rare drapery studies by the artist from the early 1470s were offered at Sotheby’s Monaco in 1989. “These headless full-length figures in tempera-on-cloth are alive with folds depicted in a gray-brown wash, heightened by a contrasting white body color,” reported a correspondent for The New York Times. “One of the Leonardo figures is seen shoulder to toe from the side; the other is drawn from the front.” They sold for $5.97 million.