Leonardo da Vinci’s "Lady with an Ermine"
On view at the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow
Opens May 12, 2012
Everyone who sees her - even if too late
To see her alive - will say: that suffices for us
To understand what is nature and what art.
- Bernardo Bellincioni, poet
at the court of Ludovico Sforza
Wawel Royal Castle, Krakow, Poland, May 10, 2012 – With these words the Bernardo Bellincioni concluded his ode on the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Leonardo da Vinci’s splendid "Lady with an Ermine" (ca. 1490, oil on panel; Princes Czartoryski Foundation, Krakow on Deposit in the National Museum, Krakow). One of Leonardo’s undisputed masterpieces, the portrait of the beloved mistress of Ludovico Sforza “Il Moro,” duke of Milan, will be on view at the Wawel Royal Castle until the completion of the major renovation now underway at the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.
The exhibition is organized by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Princes Czartoryski Foundation, Krakow, the National Museum, Krakow, and the Wawel Royal Castle.
Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski acquired the portrait in Italy in about 1800 and gave it to his mother Izabela, who was preparing to open the first public museum in Poland on her estate in Puławy (approx. 80 miles southeast of Warsaw). The painting was put on view in the “Gothic House,” which opened to the public in 1809. Czartoryska initially exhibited the work as a portrait of an unknown lady, but later, based on the picture’s similarity to another portrait by Leonardo in the Louvre, she identified the sitter as La Belle Ferronnière – the celebrated mistress of Francis I of France.
At the turn of the 20th century Polish art historians first suggested the "Lady" may be the missing portrait of Cecilia Gallerani. Bellincioni’s poem, composed soon after the portrait was completed, and extant correspondence between Gallerani and Isabella d’Este helped scholars identify the picture as such; however, the sitter’s identity continued to be a subject of debate until Gallerani’s life dates were firmly established in 1992.
The Sforzas and Krakow
"The Lady with an Ermine" will be displayed in a room in the west wing of the Wawel Castle endowed with a magnificent Renaissance bay window designed and carved by Francesco Fiorentino in the early 1500s. In an interesting historical twist, the room was once part of the apartment of Queen Bona Sforza, the second wife of Sigismund I the Old of Poland. Further, Leonardo had produced the stage sets for Bellincioni’s "Feast of Paradise" performed at the wedding of Bona’s parents Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Ludovico’s nephew, and Isabella of Aragon. Under Sigismund I and Bona, Renaissance Poland saw a consolidation of political power and a great flourishing of the arts and humanities.
The beautiful and intelligent Gallerani made her debut at the court of Milan early in 1489 and quickly caught Ludovico’s eye. Engrossed in his romance with Cecilia, the duke kept putting off his impending marriage to Isabella d’Este, which finally took place in January 1491. A few months later Cecelia bore him a son, Cesare. The portrait is an allegory of their love. The ermine (galée
in Greek; ermellino
in Italian) Cecelia holds alludes to both her surname and to Ludovico who, after receiving the Order of the Ermine from the King of Naples, was sometimes also called “Ermellino Bianco.” Since antiquity the ermine had been a symbol of purity because of its snow-white winter coat. The talented Gallerani was a poet in her own right, praised as a “great light of the Italian language.” Unfortunately, none of her poems have survived.
A Brief History of the Painting
After Gallerani died in 1536, the portrait disappeared for several centuries before it resurfaced in Poland in 1800. From then on it shared the country’s turbulent history. Poland had been partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in the late 18th century; the 19th century was marked by unrest. The 1830 uprising against Russia forced Princess Izabela Czartoryska to evacuate her collection from Puławy, just ahead of approaching Tsarist troops. The collection found refuge in the Hôtel Lambert, the Czartoryski residence-in-exile on the Île St. Louis in Paris. The turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and the Paris Commune (1871), conversely, convinced her grandson, Prince Władyslaw Czartoryski to bring the collection back to Poland. The "Lady with an Ermine" was installed in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, which opened in 1876.
During World War I, the painting was evacuated to Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie for safe-keeping; it returned to Krakow in 1920. Confiscated by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, along with other important paintings from the collection it was earmarked for Adolf Hitler’s planned museum in Linz. It wound up, however, in the hands of Hans Frank, governor general of occupied Poland who had taken up residence in the Wawel Castle, and returned to Krakow once more to adorn his apartment. At the end of the war the Leonardo was sent to Germany; recovered in 1945 it was returned to Poland. Political changes in Poland saw the incorporation of the Czartoryski Museum into the National Museum in Krakow. In 1991, the Princes Czartoryski Foundation was established and recognized as owner of the entire collection including the Leonardo. However, the collection has remained on deposit in the National Museum in Krakow.
During this period the painting has been carefully examined by conservators. In-depth technical studies have made it possible to confirm the authenticity of the work and to assess the picture’s physical condition. Despite the 19th-century overpainting of the background, the Lady with an Ermine is one of Leonardo’s best preserved pictures and most of the main elements exhibit no subsequent restoration.
- April through October
Tuesday–Friday: 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday–Sunday: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
- November, December
Tuesday–Saturday: 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
closed on Sundays and Mondays
- January through March
Tuesday–Saturday: 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Sunday 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
closed on Mondays
Last entry one hour before exhibition closes.
Admission: 10 PLN
(normal), 8 PLN
Tickets sold at ticket offices only.