The Girl in the Castello: Eden Collinsworth on Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine
"You have no idea where she's gazing, or the ermine she's holding: they're almost one serpentine configuration."
Like many masterpieces, the life and travels of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine are as fascinating as the painting itself. In her new book, What the Ermine Saw, cultural historian Eden Collinsworth traces the dramatic history of the painting from its commission in the Milan ducal court to its current home at the National Museum in Kraków, a journey that involves cameo appearances by Catherine the Great, Frédéric Chopin and Eugène Delacroix, a vicious fight among the Nazi high command, and a 230-year disappearance. I spoke to Collinsworth last week about what we know about Leonardo’s composition, his teenage subject and her odd feral pet, and some of the more unusual twists the picture has taken in the last five centuries.
Leonardo da Vinci. Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). c. 1490. Wikimedia Commons.
(Lady with an Ermine is one of just four portraits of women by Leonardo, including the National Gallery’s Genevra de Benci, La Belle Ferronniére at the Louvre and, of course, the Mona Lisa. Which is your favorite? Please share in the comments below!)
Octavian Report: What led you to write a book about Lady with an Ermine?
Eden Collinsworth: I had the opportunity to go with a small group from the National Gallery in London to Poland. I was at the museum in Kraków and I wandered into a darkened room. It was the only picture in this one room.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful, but it's extremely compelling because the young girl, who is the subject of the portrait, is looking not out, but over. She's looking at somebody. You have no idea where she's gazing, or the ermine she's holding: they're almost one serpentine configuration. It's very clear that she's looking at somebody who's far more important than you will ever be.
I was aware of the picture, but I had no idea it was in Kraków. I was so intrigued with everything about it. When I went back to London, I started to look into the history. What I found was that the owners were extremely eclectic. And it had also gone missing — “lost to view” is the dignified way of saying it — for 230 years. I was trying to sort out how I might write about this story of the picture by way of its owners, knowing that there were over two centuries where nobody knew where it was.
OR: What do we know about the sitter?
Collinsworth: Cecilia Gallerani was the young teenage daughter of someone who worked within the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. She was his mistress. She came from a good but not rich family. Possibly the date of the painting was 1490. It could have been 1489. It's difficult to know.
OR: Maybe it should be called Girl with an Ermine?
Collinsworth: She was remarkable. She had total recall. She wrote poetry, music. She spoke Latin. She possibly was the first person to launch a salon, because she engaged not only writers, but also military men, and musicians, and poets, and philosophers. She would congregate them together and debate with them. The reason I know that this was occurring in and out of Leonardo's studio was that there are notes taken by the poets and people who were in that orbit proving he was painting her at the same time.
Leonardo was not only very fastidious with the preparation of his surfaces, but he often veered off into an exploration because he just had an insatiable curiosity. Before he did anything, he made this series of revolving heads. You can see in these drawings that he was trying to understand how to move Cecilia in a way that was fluid and realistic, but in a way that would, in fact, allow her to gaze out of the picture plane and not at you. It was the first time that portraiture was not gazing out directly, or making eye contact, or looking at something in the picture.
She was so clearly looking at what I believe was Ludovico. She has an ermine, which was on the Sforza crest. It is white, although originally the picture did not have an ermine. Leonardo then introduced it. It was a brownish gray, and then he moved it into a white color to represent purity, and then he also combined various elements. It's a muscular animal. It has claws. It looks very lionesque. That, I think, had to do with his desire to depict Ludovico.
OR: Was there any art historical symbolism to the ermine or was it just the symbol of the Duke of Milan?
Collinsworth: At the time there wasn't, other than the element of purity. They are known to be fierce fighters, and their prey is often many times their size. It could also have been that the ermine was a depiction of strength. As I said, it mirrors the configuration of Cecilia holding it, because it's very attenuated, and it also is gazing at the same object.
OR: How did Leonardo come to choose this subject?
Collinsworth: He was commissioned by his patron. Leonardo was always hopeless with money. He didn't like deadlines. He didn't want to be dictated to. This was a period of time where artists were really considered and treated like craftsmen. They might have gotten a signing payment to cover their materials. Often the commission was extremely specific, and Leonardo just didn't like it from a very early age.
He would take commissions in Florence and become sidetracked. This was somebody who was just in a perpetual state of curiosity and had problems finishing things. As a result, he was broke. He had heard about Ludovico Sforza, who was still a regent. His brother was assassinated, who was a very bad piece of work, and had left behind a nephew who was seven at the time.
Ludovico was very clever and moved the mother aside and became the regent. The speculation is that, in fact, he probably poisoned his nephew to eventually take the title. But, at the time, even as a regent, he had all the trappings of a duke. He understood that, because he had stolen, so to speak, the title, he felt that he needed to present himself in a very ducal way. He began to import musicians, and architects, and a variety of people into his court.
Leonardo realized that this was a man with an open checkbook, and he thought of him as an opportunity. He wrote this very extensive letter to Ludovico, laying out with unqualified confidence what he could do. He could build bridges, he could create war machinery. He described various weapons. He could plan functions. Then, almost as a throwaway, he said, "By the way, I can also paint."
Leonardo was staggeringly handsome. He had a little bit of style. He could play instruments. He could write music. He was exceedingly polite. The court took to him right away. The first painting commission was this one of Ludovico's mistress, Cecilia.
It stayed in Milan with Cecilia until Ludovico had no choice but to marry the person he was betrothed to. He brought his wife back to the Castello Sforzesco who just had absolutely no intention of living under the same roof as this much, much loved mistress. Cecilia was packed up and left with the portrait. Ludovico made sure she would be married to an accommodating count. He deeded them property that his father had appropriated from the Visconti family.
The next reference to the painting is with Isabella d'Este, who asked to borrow it. She was the sister of Beatrice, who in fact was Ludovico's betrothed bride.
OR: Did Cecilia agree?
Collinsworth: Yes. It's small, so it literally was put in the saddlebag of a messenger. Cecilia couldn't say no, but she did say in a note, "I don't look that way anymore." So off the painting went.
Isabella d'Este was an obsessive collector. I often wondered, because she was so voracious and, more than anything else, she wanted a Leonardo, whether she kept it. But Leonardo was never not famous, so the idea that she could have kept a painting and not had somebody see it on the wall, or have it included in her catalogue is very unlikely. My sense is it came back.
OR: And the background of the painting has been altered from the original?
Collinsworth: The color was originally a muted blue-green. Nobody really knows when it was painted over black, who did it, or why.
OR: A lot of your book is about the fascinating story of the painting’s subsequent travels and ownership. One of the more dramatic moments has Hitler, Göring and other Nazis all fighting over it and then it hanging in the private office of Hitler’s lawyer. How did that happen?
Collinsworth: It was on everybody's wishlist before they invaded Poland. The Czartoryski family, who owned it, moved it to one of their estates on the outskirts of Warsaw. The Gestapo was told to go find it. Hitler made it very clear in a memo that anything that Hans Posse [ed.—Hitler’s special art envoy] designated to be the theoretical property of the proposed museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, which hadn't been built, was hands off.
However, Hitler had assigned the role of governor-general of Poland to his personal lawyer, Hans Frank, who then was in charge of this entire campaign, but also became the architect for the train system that brought the Jews to Auschwitz. He wanted this painting more than anything above his desk in the castle which was his base of operations in the center of Kraków. It was a 14th century castle full of art. Hitler said, "I'll loan it to you until after the war when we build the museum."
OR: But despite its myriad detours, the painting was essentially in the collection of the Czartoryski family of Poland for two centuries, since the time it resurfaced. How did they obtain it? Was it still in Italy?
Collinsworth: The first time that it was mentioned again after 230 years was by Izabela Czartoryska in correspondence. She documented her collection. She said, in effect, "My son, Adam Czartoryski, brought this back." We just assume that it was from Italy.
She said, essentially, "This is a Leonardo, and it's of a young girl. I don't know what the animal is. It could be an ugly dog." That was the first written affirmation that it was with the Czartoryski family.
Her son Adam Jerzy Czartoryski had been used as a kind of negotiating pawn for the family to hold onto one of its many estates in Poland when Catherine the Great fundamentally disappeared the entire nation. Catherine let them keep the estate, but, just to indicate to the family who was in charge, she said, "You send your eldest son to me in St. Petersburg, and he becomes part of my court." It was an incredibly humiliating situation because they were great patriots.
But, in fact, Adam settled in and was hugely respected. As a result of various circumstances, he was assigned the role of Russian ambassador in Italy. That's when Napoleon arrived and was making his way through the country. He taxed, in the most draconian way, the nobility in order to pay for his army. Many of them had assets but no cash, and so my sense is that it was the ambassadors who understood who needed to move property, paintings, and so on and so forth.
My sense is that Adam purchased it from an Italian noble family. He also brought back with him Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael, which disappeared during the Second World War.
His mother was basically trying to build a national museum for Poland. She started out collecting artifacts that had to do with Polish culture. Then, like any collector, she cast her net wider. It was pretty wacky. She would do things like buy what she insisted was Shakespeare's chair. She was a real pistol. Everybody was quite impressed with her, including Benjamin Franklin, who she met in London.
OR: Who owns it now?
Collinsworth: The Polish government. The family sold the whole kit and caboodle in 2016 for €100 million. It's completely priceless.
When it travelled, it always had its own plane, and the pilots flew deliberately at a low altitude. The pilots had two other clients. One were organ donations. Apparently when you bring them up to a certain height, they dry up or explode or something like that. The other was Pavarotti, who just made it very clear his voice was his great asset.
But with the Louvre show, on the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death a couple of years ago, the Polish government stopped it from traveling. They said "Forget it. It's not going anywhere. It's going to stay in Kraków." So you have to go to Kraków now.
OR: What made them decide to do that?
Collinsworth: There was this hysterical incident. When it came to America the first time, it was seen at the National Gallery in Washington. Carter Brown had lobbyed for it, and flew to Poland to speak with Lech Wałęsa, who said, "No, it's not going anywhere." But George Bush, Sr. knew how to work the system.
Then it came back for a show in Milwaukee. First in Texas, and then in Milwaukee. Usually, in Europe, there were NATO soldiers accompanying it. There was enormous security for all of the obvious reasons. But, somehow, in Milwaukee, the curator, and the insurance man, and the picture were dropped off literally at curbside. They said, "You deal with it."
The airport security wanted to x-ray it. The curator was very polite. Then she couldn't bear it anymore, and she just lost it. It was pulled off the conveyor belt. That's when all hell broke loose, when they just said, "Okay, enough's enough. This is crazy. It shouldn't be traveling anymore."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.