Sunday, 18 January 2009
Musing: The Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci
A young woman is looking away from us in a quite idealized manner, holding a white ermine in her lap. She almost resemble a fashionable woman from the 20's with her necklace of black pearls and a black ribbon over her forehead - and an almost modern face. But she is a lady from the 15th century, this portrait being painted of her c. 1489-90 when she was about 16-17 years old. She was one Ludovico Sforza's, the Duke of Milan's official mistresses and a talented singer, musician and poet. According to some sources, her salon was the first in Europe, where she entertained the Milanese intellectuals discussing philosophy, art and other subjects. It was also here she invited Leonardo and became friends with him.
At first, I was puzzled by the fact that she is holding an ermine in her lap (clasping it with a slender hand - how different from the rounded, feminine hands seen in Rococo portraits!). Ermines are small predators, surely they wouldn't let you hold them without clawing or biting? And back then, they weren't pets either, people made collars and other fashionable accessories of them instead.
Then I found out that it might hint at the woman's name - Cecilia Gallerani - galée meaning ermine in Greek. It may also be a reference to her lover's membership of the Order of the Ermine. And then, of course - ermine is a symbol of purity and virtue - quite important things to a sophisticated Renaissance woman - a patron of the arts (according to a contemporary writer) - as Cecilia Gallerani.