Given that Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) died nearly five centuries ago, it seems unlikely that there would be still be major discoveries about this Italian Renaissance master.
But “unlikely” happens.
The French scientist Pascal Cotte spent three years using a pioneering reflective light technology to examine A Lady with an Ermine, and discovered that Leonardo painted three iterations of this work: one without an ermine and one with a gray ermine preceded the final version with a larger, white ermine.
This discovery is not only important technically (in the words of art historian Martin Kemp, “It helps explain why he [Leonardo] had so much difficulty finishing paintings”), but also is important because it may shift interpretation of one of the world’s most famous paintings.
Art historians generally concur that the portrait is of Cecilia Gallerani (1473 – 1536). By numerous accounts, she was a glamorous, highly intelligent, and charming young woman whose father served at the court of Ludovico Sforza, the powerful Duke of Milan (and also the patron of Leonardo da Vinci for 18 years).
Cecilia had been betrothed at the age of 10 to the nobleman Giovanni Stefano Visconti in an arrangement dissolved in 1487. Around 1489, she became the favorite mistress of Ludovico Sforza, who had been betrothed to Beatrice d’Este (1475-1497) since 1480.
To avoid angering Beatrice, Ludovico had Cecilia removed from the ducal palace in 1491 and taken to a location where she shortly thereafter gave birth to their son, Cesare.
More history is in order. In 1488, Ludovico was awarded the insignia of the chevalric Order of the Ermine by the King of Naples. Thereafter, the Duke of Milan was known as “l’Ermellino”, the ermine. Given that nickname, the presence of the ermine in this portrait takes on significance in two ways:
- first, it is a reference to Cecilia’s surname because the sound of “Galle-rani” echoes the Greek word for ermine, gale, and
- figuratively, the portrait shows Ludovico, as his symbolic animal, being lovingly caressed by Cecilia.
The three discrete versions unearthed by Cotte suggest that Leonardo reworked the portrait between 1488 and 1490, most likely to suggest the growing intimacy between Ludovico and his young mistress.
Lady with an Ermine is unusual in other ways, too. It is the only of all 15-16 Leonardo da Vinci paintings on a jet black background; additionally, Leonardo deviated from the typical compositional format of Italian Renaissance art in which the head and body faced the same way. Here, the two are at opposing angles with Cecilia’s upper body turned to the left and her head turned to the right. The sinuous curve of her disproportionately large right hand corresponds with the figure of the ermine, whom she seems to be protecting.
By having the sitter avert her eyes, Leonardo da Vinci invites the viewer to contemplate Cecilia’s state of mind.
While she appears contemplative and content in this 1490 portrait, that must have changed: Beatrice and Sforza married in 1491. Documentary evidence indicates that Lady with an Ermine remained in Cecilia Gallerani’s possession.
Perhaps it provided some solace.
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