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Leonardo's mysterious lady: it took more than 300 years to unravel the mystery behind da Vinci's painting lady with an ermine.

More than 500 years ago, artist Leonardo da Vinci painted a picture that haunted people for centuries. In the portrait, a woman is holding a strange animal. The woman in the painting looks out into space, toward something we cannot see.

For years, art lovers and historians wondered about the mysterious origins of the painting. Who was the woman? Why was she holding such an unusual creature? Scholars, artists, and poets visited the painting at its home in the Czartoryski Museum in Poland. All tried to unlock the story behind Lady with an Ermine.


Parade Floats and Paintings

During the 1800s, scholars slowly began to gather hints about the portrait. They started by studying the life of Leonardo da Vinci, searching for clues to the identity of the woman.

Like many artists during the 1400s and 1500s, da Vinci worked for mighty princes and dukes. In his middle age, he was employed by the Duke of Milan. Leonardo performed all kinds of jobs for the duke. He designed military equipment to protect the city of Milan, and he did repairs on the family castle. He also designed memorial sculptures, stage sets, and parade floats. He even built a hot tub for the duke's family. And he created works of art--paintings to fill the walls of the castle.

Many people journeyed to the castle just to see the masterpieces of the duke's greatest painter, Leonardo da Vinci. When they left, visitors wrote letters and notes describing the works of art they had seen. A court poet named Bernardo Bellincioni wrote a poem in praise of da Vinci's portrait of a woman named Cecilia Gallerani.

It is Vinci, who has painted one of your stars!

Cecilia, today so very beautiful, is the one

Beside whose beautiful eyes the sun appears as a dark shadow.

When scholars read that poem, they began to wonder if Bellincioni was describing Lady with an Ermine. Could that lady be Cecilia Gallerani?


The White Ermine

Cecilia Gallerani was born in Milan in 1473. She was a woman of great talents and education. She spent her childhood learning Latin and memorizing poetry. Around the age of 16, she came to stay at the court of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. She lived at the castle for many years. The duke soon fell in love with her. Since Sforza was the same duke who had hired Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps he had asked da Vinci to paint a portrait of Cecilia.

Although da Vinci never named the subjects of his portraits, he filled them with tiny hints about their identities. When art historians looked closer, the portrait seemed to contain several clues that the lady holding the ermine was indeed Cecilia Gallerani.

One of those clues was the ermine itself, an animal that da Vinci had often studied and drawn in his notebooks.

The ermine was an animal that was considered an elegant and highly prized pet. The Duke of Milan's nickname was the "white ermine." The duke also belonged to a group of knights called the Order of the Ermine. Even Cecilia's last name was a clue. It contains the Greek word for ermine.

Scholars believed these were enough clues to determine that the woman in da Vinci's painting was indeed Cecilia Gallerani. They also speculated that this may be why the ermine in her arms looks so attentive and humanlike. Perhaps this was da Vinci's way of placing the duke in the painting, silently peering from the arms of the woman he loved.

For the next three months, Lady with an Ermine will be shown at the National Gallery in London. It will then return to Poland.

See sketches by Leonardo da Vinci on
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Title Annotation:Leonardo da Vinci's painting 'Lady with an Ermine'
Publication:Highlights for Children
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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