Italian Art Heritage Abroad: Lady With An Ermine

Leonardo’s masterpiece Lady with an Ermine is displayed in Poland due to a long and interesting story

Leonardo Da Vinci painted just four portraits of women and none of them is in Italy. Before the famous Mona Lisa indeed, the Italian master worked on different gems that all the world can now enjoy. Among those, Lady with an Ermine, displayed in the National Museum in Krakow, Poland, due to a long and interesting story.

It all goes back to when the Duchy of Milan lived its heyday under Ludovico Sforza, known as ‘Il Moro’: namely, between the 1400s and the 1500s, when the Italian Renaissance reached its peak with his thriving court and wonderful works of art that he commissioned to the best artists from that era, including Leonardo Da Vinci.

A neverending love story

Lady with an Ermine was not only a simple portrait of a woman requested by Ludovico. The depiction illustrates the real love story between the Duke of Milan and his favourite mistress Cecilia Gallerani, a beautiful and cultured Lady descendant of an old family from Siena, Tuscany.

Cecilia met the Duke when she was sixteen, following the death of her father, Fazio Gallerani. This last worked for years at the Milanese Court and, after he passed away, the Gallerani family asked the Duke to take possession of their inheritance. This was probably the moment when Ludovico and Cecilia have first met and when their neverending love story began, despite the marriage of the Duke with Beatrice d’Este in 1491. And the year, a baby from the ‘not so secret’ relationship between Ludovico and Cecilia, Cesare Sforza, was born. After this unexpected event, Cecilia would be pulled away from the Court, receiving many goods from the Duke even though a year later she had to marry Earl Ludovico Carminati near Cremona, lower Lombardy.

Cecilia Gallerani was a very important subject in Leonardo’s life, as she introduced him many Milanese intellectuals and scientists, inviting him to their periodic meetings where she was also participating. Cecilia was talented in singing and writing, and established one of the first literary circles of the Lombard city.

The story of the painting

But how did her portrait end up in Poland? In 1798, two years after the dissolution of the Duchy of Milan, the Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski acquired the painting during a trip in the newborn Cisalpine Republic, currently northern Italy, when he recognized Leonardo’s hand, although there wasn’t track of any previous owner. Lady with an Ermine was thus added into the Czartoryski family collection in their city of Puławy, eastern Poland, but in the centuries ahead the only memory left of the love between Ludovico and Cecilia really risked its disappearance.

In 1830, just before the Russian military invasion of Poland, Princess Czartoryska was able to hide the invaluable painting by sending it to Paris, where the Polish noble family Czartoryski went into exile. Lady with an Ermine remained abroad for more than fifty years before its return to Krakow in 1882. Anyway, after the sudden invasion of Poland in 1939 and the occupation of Polish territories by the Nazis, the painting was seized and sent to the Bode Museum in Berlin. However, the following year, Hans Frank, the German Governor General of occupied Poland and ruthless criminal known as the “Adolf Hitler’s lawyer”, personally requested for the return of Lady with an Ermine to Krakow. Once he obtained the painting back, he hung it up in his Wawel Castle suite which, in the meanwhile, had become its residency, like he was a king rather than a war criminal.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

Hans Frank loved so much Leonardo’s masterpiece that, when he fled Krakow in January 1945 while the Soviet Army advancing towards Poland, he brought it to Bavaria, where he took refuge. After his capture and the end of the Second World War, the painting was found by the Allied troops and returned it to Poland, which will preserve and display it at the Czartoryski Museum and Library in Krakow, thanks to the Czartoryski Foundation. Then, Lady with an Ermine was later returned to Wawel Castle from 2012 to 2017, date on which it was permanently moved to the National Museum in Krakow, after it was purchased from the Czartoryski Foundation by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The transaction was paid around 100 million euros, provoking much controversy, as its estimated value stands at around two billion euros.

Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo Da Vinci

Certainly, for the heir Prince Adam Czartoryski, the love for Poland counted more than money, as well as for the Duke of Milan Ludovico Il Moro his love for Cecilia Gallerani counted more than court gossip. In all of this, the magnificent work by Leonardo da Vinci remains one of the first masterpieces in oil paint in Italy, a technique never used before 1470.

The Ermine

Finally, what does the figure of the Ermine mean? If you look at the portrait from close up, you can see that the Lady and the Ermine both have their eyes pointing in the same direction. This means there is full identification and harmony between the two subjects. It is no coincidence. The parallelism between Cecilia and the Ermine has a special and romantic meaning: in Greek language this animal is called ‘Galé’, a clear reference to Cecilia’s surname, and the Ermine has always been considered a symbol of purity and incorruptibility, two qualities that Duke Ludovico Il Moro associated to the young and beatiful Cecilia. Leonardo Da Vinci himself wrote it down: “An Ermine would let itself be captured by hunters rather than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain the purity of its white cloak”.

Now that you know a little bit more about this cornerstone of Italian art heritage abroad, we advice you to visit it: Poland is a beatiful country and the city of Krakow its main jewel. Last but not least, Italian language is very popular over there, due to the high influence of Pope John Paul II and because in recent years migration between the two countries became bidirectional. If Duke Ludovico Sforza knew how many people are now looking Cecilia every day, he would certainly be jealous!