Who is La belle Ferronière?

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La Belle Ferroniere

Duke Ludovico Sforza chose not to marry Cecilia Gallerani, the presumed subject Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine.” He instead wedded Beatrice d’Este, a sister of Isabella d’Este, who later sat for a portrait by Ambrogio de Predis, a Milanese artist who worked closely with Leonardo on the latter’s first version of The Virgin of the Rocks. Sadly, Beatrice died in childbirth on January 3, 1497; renowned for her beauty, intellect, and political acumen, she was only 21 years old.

Two months after Beatrice’s death, another woman went into labor at the court of Milan. Her name was Lucrezia Crivelli, a lady-in-waiting to Beatrice, who in 1495 succeeded Cecilia Gallerani as the Duke’s maîtresse-en-titre (“official mistress”). In March of 1497, she too bore the Duke a son; he was named Giovanni Paolo, the later Marquess of Caravaggio.

While the identification is disputed, we believe that Lucrezia is the sitter in another important portrait by Leonardo from this time, commonly referred to as La belle Ferronnière, which today is on display in the Louvre. The almost photographic realism of the portrait, achieved through a subtle chiaroscuro against the black limbo of the background (note, for example, the luminous passage on her lower cheek, lit by the reflection of her bare shoulder) is certainly a continuation of the theme of Lady with an Ermine. The understated jewelry is another feature that this painting shares with the Gallerani portrait.

As we saw in the preceding blog post, Duke Ludovico Sforza chose not to marry Cecilia Gallerani, the presumed subject Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine.” He instead wedded Beatrice d’Este, a sister of Isabella d’Este, who later sat for a portrait by Ambrogio de Predis, a Milanese artist who worked closely with Leonardo on the latter’s first version of The Virgin of the Rocks. Sadly, Beatrice died in childbirth on January 3, 1497; renowned for her beauty, intellect, and political acumen, she was only 21 years old.

The meaning of the title La belle Ferronière (meaning the wife or daughter of an ironmonger, a ferronier), which first appears in a 1709 inventory of the French royal collection, has been the subject of extensive speculation. One of the mistresses of King Francis I of France was married to a man named Le Ferron; it is possible that the inventory simply confused our Milanese lady with a portrait of the king’s maîtresse. Another, even earlier inventory, drawn up in 1642, correctly ascribes the painting to Leonardo, but calls it a “portrait of a Duchess of Mantua,” thus adding to the confusion. To complicate matters further, the portrait of the Lady with an Ermine was also at one point described as La belle Ferronière, given that the small chain worn on her forehead was called a ferronière in 15th-century France.

Part of the painting may have been executed by Leonardo’s assistants. We know that at the court of Milan, Leonardo relied on a number of collaborators. One of these was Ambrogio de Predis (and possibly his brother Evangelista), who as we saw worked with Leonardo on the first Virgin of the Rocks. Vasari tells us that these two associates were joined by Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, who were likewise trained painters rather than “pupils.” Eventually the studio grew to a total of six “dependents” (as Leonardo described them), including his companion, Salaì; a painter named Tommaso Masini or Zoroastro; a German artist known simply as Giulio; and a bevy of other pupils, variously identified as Gianmaria, Galeazzo, Bartolomeo, Benedetto, and others. Not surprisingly, the Louvre ascribes the Crivelli portrait to “the School of Leonardo da Vinci.”

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