Another truly enigmatic painting is the so-called portrait of a Lady with an Ermine, currently in Krakow, Poland. Of all the breakthroughs that this painting represents, the most important one is the suggestion of movement—as if the sitter was caught in the midst of shifting her gaze. The effect enhances the sitter’s natural poise and grace.
Naturally, Leonardo did not arrive at this solution overnight. Among other artifacts, we have an amazing worksheet (now in the Windsor collection) where the artist explored some twenty different ways in which a woman’s head, neck, and torso could be positioned, often seen from a variety of angles. The sheet is a textbook example of contrapposto, the classical ideal of moving the head, torso, and limbs of a human body in different positions from its center axis. “From varied viewpoints,” Leonardo wrote in his Treatise on Painting, painstakingly put together by his pupil Francesco Melzi, “each human action is displayed as infinite in itself.”
One of the poses on the worksheet, showing a girl’s head turned to her left, would set the stage for the portrait of a Lady with an Ermine. The breakthrough elements of this picture—its soft chiaroscuro, in sharp contrast with the deep dark background, the attentive gaze of the sitter, as if caught by something outside our view—have been imitated so many times in paintings and photography that it is difficult for us to grasp the painting’s originality.
Leonardo’s chiaroscuro—the delicate transition from light to shadow to suggest the shape and texture of the human body—would become the hallmark of his style. “I must remind you,” Leonardo wrote for his planned Treatise on Painting, “to take care that every portion of a body, and every smallest detail which is ever so little in relief, must be given its proper importance as to light and shade.”
Familiarity has worn away our appreciation of this portrait, but that certainly wasn’t the case for Leonardo’s contemporaries, who must have been astonished to see such a lifelike and arresting portrait. For the first time in the Italian Renaissance, an artist had created a portrait of a woman that not only captured her likeness, but also her very soul. Leonardo was very much aware of this. In his Treatise, he wrote: “A figure is most praiseworthy when it expresses the passion of its mind.” A poet at the Sforza court, Bernardo Bellincioni, wrote that Leonardo “made her seem so lifelike that she appears to be listening, and not speaking just now.” Or, in the words of John Pope-Hennessy, the Lady with an Ermine is the first portrait in European art to show that a painting could express the sitter’s thoughts simply through a combination of posture and gesture.
Indeed, Leonardo wrote that to capture the elusive thoughts of a sitter, a painter had to use the “gestures and movements of the limbs.” In Lady with an Ermine, gesture is indeed a key element, not only stylistically but also allegorically. On close inspection, the slender fingers are slightly elongated to make them appear more graceful—a conceit that Leonardo undoubtedly learned from his master, Verrocchio.
As our gaze is drawn toward these beautiful hands, we see that her right hand is absentmindedly caressing the neck of an ermine, thus enhancing the pensive, almost intellectual air of the portrait. Does the presence of this ermine, a weasel-like animal, also provide a key to deciphering the sitter’s identification? We know that the ermine was a favorite pet of the aristocracy, and one of the emblems of Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan; known as a stoat, inspired by the Dutch word stout, it was believed to be “bold and courageous.” Others, including Leonardo himself, equated the animal with “immaculate purity” —a quality that was both admired and expected from a female courtier at the time. What these allusions tell us is that we must be dealing with an important lady from the court of Milan.
Another important clue is hidden in the Greek name for “ermine.” By this time, Greek had once again become part of the educational curriculum for high-born children, so that courtiers were expected to have some familiarity with Greek authors and Greek poetry. As it happened, the Greek name for an ermine is gale or galay. Taken together, the clues all seem to point toward Cecilia Gallerani, a young woman whom the Duke took as his lover when she was sixteen.
The portrait was probably executed between 1489, when Cecilia began her affair with Ludovico, and later in 1490, when she became pregnant; she then bore the Duke’s son in January of 1491. Alas, the Duke chose not to marry her, opting instead for a dynastic wedding with Beatrice, a daughter of the prominent House of d’Este; her father was Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara.