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Lady with an Ermine

This is another fairy tale but this one is true. It begins in Milan and ends in Krakow. During his stay in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci painted the duke's mistress posing with an ermine. Leonardo met Cecilia Gallerani in Milan in 1484 while both were living in Castello Sforzesco, the Palace of Duke Lodovico Sforza. She was the Duke's mistress, a 17 year old beauty who played music and wrote poetry. Later on, both Gallerani and the duke married others. Central to this very civilized resolution of a potentially troublesome romantic liaison was that Gallerani had borne the duke a child. The painting ended up in her possession. Gradually, the story of how the painting came to be created faded from memory and for many years, the name of the woman with the ermine was unknown to historians.

There are several interpretations of the significance of the ermine in the portrait. Ermines represented the aristocracy, and the association of Cecilia with this symbol could have been intentional. It has also been read as a symbol of purity or of Lodovico Sforza, whose emblem was a little ermine. Alternatively, it could be a allusion to Gallerani's name - the Greek for ermine is galee.

As in many of Leonardo da Vinci's portraits, the composition comprises a pyramidic spiral and the sitter is caught in the motion of turning to her left, reflecting Leonardo's life-long preoccupation with the dynamics of movement. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of his many innovations. Sforza's court poet, Bernando Bellincioli, was the first to suggest that Cecilia is poised as if listening to an unseen speaker. This work in particular shows da Vinci's expertise in painting the human form. The outstretched hand of Cecilia was painted with great detail. Da Vinci paints every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger. Da Vinci had practiced drawing portraits of humans with animals in his journals many times in order to perfect his portraits. Lady with an Ermine is one of only three female portraits painted by da Vinci. The best known one is the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, the other is Ginevra da Benci in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.