Lady with an Ermine

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Lady with an Ermine
Italian: Dama con l'ermellino, Polish: Dama z gronostajem
The Lady with an Ermine.jpg
ArtistLeonardo da Vinci
TypeOil on wood panel
SubjectCecilia Gallerani
Dimensions54 cm × 39 cm (21 in × 15 in)[1]
LocationNational Museum, Kraków, Poland

Lady with an Ermine (Italian: Dama con l'ermellino [ˈdaːma kon lermelˈliːno]; Polish: Dama z gronostajem) is a painting by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci from around 1489–1490 and one of Poland's national treasures.[2] The portrait's subject is Cecilia Gallerani, painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the Duke's service. It is one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, and La belle ferronnière.

The Lady with an Ermine was sold for 100 Million Euro on 29 of December 2016 to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage by Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, the last direct descendant of Izabela Czartoryska Flemming and Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who brought the painting to Poland from Italy in 1798.[3][4]

Subject and symbolism[edit]

The small portrait generally called The Lady with the Ermine was painted in oils on a wooden panel. Oil paint was relatively new to Italy at the time, having been introduced in the 1470s.

The subject has been identified with reasonable certainty as Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo's employer, Ludovico Sforza.[5]

Gallerani was a member of a large family that was neither wealthy nor noble. Her father served for a time at the Duke's court. When her portrait was painted, she was about 16 years old and was renowned for her beauty, scholarship and poetry. She was married at approximately age six to a young nobleman of the house of Visconti, but she sued to annul the marriage in 1487 for undisclosed reasons and the request was granted. She became the Duke's mistress and bore him a son, even after his marriage to Beatrice d'Este 11 years previously.[6] Beatrice was promised to the Duke when she was only 5, and married him when she was 16 in 1491. After a few months, she discovered the Duke was still seeing Gallerani, and forced the Duke to end the relationship by having her married to a local count named Bergamino.

The painting shows a half-height figure, the body of a woman turned at a three-quarter angle toward her right, but with her face turned toward her left. Her gaze is directed neither straight ahead, nor toward the viewer, but toward a "third party" beyond the picture's frame. Gallerani holds a small white-coated stoat, known as an ermine. Her dress is comparatively simple, revealing that she is not a noblewoman. Her coiffure, known as a coazone, confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of it bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band, and a sheath over the plait.[7]

There are several interpretations of the ermine's significance. In its winter coat, the ermine was a traditional symbol of purity, as it was believed it would face death rather than soil its white coat.[8] In his old age, Leonardo compiled a bestiary in which he recorded:

MODERATION The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.[9]

He repeats this idea in another note, "Moderation curbs all the vices. The ermine prefers to die rather than soil itself."[10] Ermines were kept as pets by the aristocracy and their white pelts were used to line or trim aristocratic garments. For Ludovico il Moro, the ermine had a further personal significance in that he had been in the Order of the Ermine (Naples) in 1488 and used it as a personal emblem.[11] The association of the ermine with Cecilia Gallerani could have referred both to her purity and to make an association with her lover. Alternatively, the ermine could be a pun on her name: The Ancient Greek term for ermine, or other weasel-like species of animals, is galê (γαλῆ) or galéē (γαλέη).[12] This would be in keeping with Leonardo's placement of a juniper bush behind the figure in his portrait of Ginevra de Benci in reference to her name. Given that Gallerani gave birth to a son acknowledged by Lodovico in May 1491, and the association of weasels and pregnancy in Italian Renaissance culture, it also is possible the animal was a symbol of Cecilia's pregnancy.[13] In addition, it has been speculated that the animal in the painting may not be an ermine,[14] but a white ferret, a colour favoured in the Middle Ages because of the ease of seeing the white animal in thick undergrowth.

As in many of Leonardo's paintings, the composition comprises a pyramidic spiral and the sitter is caught in the motion of turning to her left, reflecting Leonardo's lifelong preoccupation with the dynamics of movement. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of his many innovations. Il Moro's court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni, was the first to propose that Cecilia was poised as if listening to an unseen speaker.

This work in particular shows Leonardo's expertise in painting the human form. Cecelia's outstretched hand was painted in great detail, with every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger.


Lady with an Ermine has been subjected to two detailed laboratory examinations. The first was in the Warsaw Laboratories, with the findings published by K. Kwiatkowski in 1955. It underwent examination and restoration again in 1992 at the Washington National Gallery Laboratories under the supervision of David Bull.[1]

The painting is in oil on a thin walnut wood panel, about 4–5 millimetres (0.16–0.20 in) thick, prepared with a layer of white gesso and a layer of brownish underpaint.[1] The panel is in good condition apart from a break to the upper left side. Its size has never been altered, as indicated by a narrow unpainted border on all four sides.

The background was thinly overpainted with unmodulated black, probably between 1830 and 1870, when the damaged corner was restored. Eugène Delacroix was suggested to have painted the background. Its previous colour was a bluish grey.[1] The signature "LEONARD D'AWINCI" (which is Polish phonetical transcription of the name "da Vinci") in the upper left corner is not original.[15]

X-ray and microscopic analysis have revealed the charcoal-pounced outline of the pricked preparatory drawing on the prepared undersurface, a technique Leonardo learned in the studio of Verrocchio.[16]

Apart from the black of the background and some abrasion caused by cleaning, the painted surface reveals the painting is almost entirely by the artist's hand. There has been some slight retouching of her features in red, and the edge of the veil in ochre. Some scholars believe there also was some later retouching of the hands.[1]

Leonardo's fingerprints have been found in the surface of the paint, indicating he used his fingers to blend his delicate brushstrokes.[17]


The painting was acquired in Italy in 1798 by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, the son of Princess Izabela Czartoryska and Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, and incorporated into the Czartoryski family collections at Puławy in 1800. The inscription on the top-left corner of the painting, LA BELE FERONIERE. LEONARD DAWINCI., was probably added by a restorer shortly after its arrival in Poland,[18] and before the background was overpainted.[19] Czartoryski was clearly aware it was a Leonardo, although the painting had never been discussed in print; no record exists of any previous owner. The Belle Ferronière is the Leonardo portrait in the Louvre, whose sitter bears such a close resemblance, the Czartoryskis considered this sitter to be the same.

The painting travelled extensively during the 19th century. During the November Uprising in 1830, the 84-year-old Princess Czartoryska rescued it in advance of the invading Russian army, hid it, and sent it 100 miles south to the Czartoryski palace at Sieniawa.[20] Soon after, it was transferred to the Czartoryski place of exile in Paris, the Hôtel Lambert. The family returned to Poland in 1869, settling in Kraków. In the tumultuous aftermath of the German occupation of Paris in 1871 and the Commune, the family brought the painting to Kraków in 1876[20] and the museum opened in 1878. During World War I, the painting was moved to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister[21] in Dresden for safe-keeping,[22] returning to Kraków in 1920.

In 1939, just ahead of the German occupation of Poland, it was again moved to Sieniawa,[20] but it was discovered and seized by the Nazis and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. In 1940, Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland, saw the painting there and requested it be returned to Kraków, where it hung in his suite of offices in the Wawel Castle. In 1941, it was transferred to a warehouse of other plundered art in Breslau. In 1943 it was brought back to Kraków and exhibited at the Wawel Castle.[20] At the end of the Second World War it was discovered by Allied troops in Frank's country home in Schliersee, Bavaria and was returned to Poland in 1946. It was again placed on exhibit at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, where it remained until the museum closed in 2010. Since May 2017, it has been exhibited in the National Museum, Kraków, just outside the Old Town.


When exhibited in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2003, the painting was described as "signal[ling] a breakthrough in the art of psychological portraiture".[23]

Popular culture[edit]

Lady with an Ermine was one of the visual inspirations for Philip Pullman's concept of dæmons, appearing in the His Dark Materials series of novels.[24]

Mike Resnick's science fiction novel Lady with an Alien (2005) was inspired by Resnick's opinion that the animal in Gallerani's arms "simply doesn't look like an ermine".[25]

Lady with an Ermine has inspired Vinci (2004), a Polish heist comedy film directed by Juliusz Machulski.

The 2016 psychological horror video game Layers of Fear features a perversion of Lady with an Ermine as an example of the protagonist's insanity and musophobia. Lady with an Ermine is also an attainable Steam badge in the game.

Lady with an Ermine is a central plot element in the (1992) alternate history suspense novel Fatherland, by Robert Harris.

In Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time, Lady LeJean is based on Woman Holding Ferret by Leonard of Quirm, a parody of this painting.


  1. ^ a b c d e Preservation and Scientific examinations, David Bull
  2. ^ "Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine among Poland's "Treasures" - Event -". Retrieved 18 November 2017.
  3. ^ "Leonarda da Vinci, "Dama z gronostajem"". Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie (in Polish). 2017. Retrieved 2017-05-26.
  4. ^
  5. ^ M. Kemp, entry for The Lady with an Ermine in the exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (Washington-New Haven-London) pp 271f, states "the identification of the sitter in this painting as Cecilia Gallerani is reasonably secure;" Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, "Cecilia Gallerani: Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine" Artibus et Historiae 13 No. 25 (1992:47–66) discuss the career of this identification since it was first suggested in 1900.
  6. ^ Who was Cecilia Gallerani?, Barbara Fabjan and Pietro C. Marani, Exhibition notes, October 15, 1998
  7. ^ Notes for a portrait: the Lady's dress and hairstyle, Grazietta Butazzi, Exhibition notes, 1998
  8. ^ Boria Sax, The Mythical Zoo: an encyclopedia of animals in world myth, legend, and literature, 2001, s.v. "Beaver, porcupine, badger and miscellaneous rodents".
  9. ^ James Beck, "The Dream of Leonardo da Vinci", Artibus et Historiae 14 No. 27 (1993:185–198) p. 188; Beck adds, "the artist left a pictorial record to accompany his written testimony—the famous Portrait of a Lady with an ermine (Czartoryski Collection, Cracow)
  10. ^ Beck 1009:191.
  11. ^ A. Rona, "l'investitura di Lodovico il Moro dell'Ordine dell'Armellino" Archivio Storico Lombardo 103 (1979:346-58); as political allegory, see C. Pedretti, "La Dama dell'Ermellino come allegoria politica", Studi politici in onore di Luigi Firpo I, Milan 1990:161-81, both noted by Ruth Wilkins Sullivan, in "Three Ferrarese Panels on the Theme of 'Death Rather than Dishonour' and the Neapolitan Connection" Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 57.4 (1994:610–625) p. 620 and note 68.
  12. ^ Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; Jones, Henry Stuart. "γαλέη". A Greek-English Lexicon.
  13. ^ Jacqueline Musacchio, "Weasels and Pregnancy in Renaissance Italy", Renaissance Studies 15 (2001): 172–187.
  14. ^ Tracy Godse. "Ermine or Ferret?"
  15. ^ "The first lady of the Renaissance visits Spain". El País. Retrieved 11 Feb 2012.
  16. ^ David Bull, Two Portraits by Leonardo: "Ginevra de' Benci" and the "Lady with an Ermine" Artibus et Historiae 13 No. 25 (1992:67–83), pp 76ff.
  17. ^ Bull 1993:81.
  18. ^ Shell and Sironi 1992.
  19. ^ Bull 1992:78.
  20. ^ a b c d Muchnic, Suzanne (1 April 2003). "An intriguing tale of survival". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 30 March 2019.
  21. ^ "Leonardo da Vinci "Lady with an Ermine"". Wawel Royal Castle. Archived from the original on 7 July 2017.
  22. ^ Stanford, Peter (12 November 2011). "Will The Lady with an Ermine topple the Mona Lisa as the world's favourite painting?". The Telegraph.
  23. ^ Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendour of Poland Archived 2009-02-15 at the Wayback Machine, exhibition February 17, 2003
  24. ^ Robert Butler (2007-12-03). "An Interview with Philip Pullman". Intelligent Life. Archived from the original on 2008-03-05. Retrieved 2012-07-01.
  25. ^ Lady with an Alien, by Mike Resnick, published 2005 by Watson-Guptill


  • Laurie Schneier Adams, Italian Renaissance Art, (Boulder: Westview Press) 2001.

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