With her entrancing gaze, youthful face and delicate features, the beauty of Cecilia Gallerani astonished even Leonardo da Vinci when he sat down to paint the young Italian woman some 500 years ago.
Against the backdrop of a sprawling Milanese Castello, the young painter had been commissioned to produce a portrait of the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan.
Clutching a white stoat as a symbol of her love for the duke, who occasionally went by the name White Ermine, the Lady with an Ermine became one of the most famous Renaissance paintings in history.
Now, the remarkable story of the portrait – which is one of only four da Vinci paintings of women still in existence – has been told in Eden Collinsworth’s new book, titled What the Ermine Saw.
The book charts the painting’s incredible journey through history, encountering tumultuous politics and fortunes of Europe, across France, Poland and Germany.
Lost for over two centuries, the painting would find its way into the private collection of Polish Princess Izabela Czartoryski, the ownership of an exiled man in Paris and stumbling into the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
After being hidden by a housekeeper in Poland, the portrait would eventually be stolen by the Gestapo and was nearly destroyed after falling into the hands of high-ranking Nazi, Hans Frank.
After enduring a tumultuous 20th century, the Renaissance portrait is currently housed at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, where it remains one of Poland’s finest national treasures.
Lady with an Ermine is the second of only four surviving portraits of women painted by Leonardo da Vinci and is one of the most famous Renaissance paintings in history
Between 1486-90, a young da Vinci arrived at the palace of Sforza, where he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the duke’s lover – who was suspected to be around 12 at the time.
Despite remaining the love of his life, Cecilia was banished from the palace by Sforza’s jealous new wife and took the painting with her when she left- though she was thought not to have it in her possession when she died.
After vanishing without a trace, the portrait was missing for over 250 years, with the painting’s next recorded owner Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska.
Born in Polish Empire of 1746, Izabela’s father was the grand treasurer of the Duchy of Lithuania while her mother who was part of the ancient Polish-Lithuanian dynasty the Czartoryskis.
After vanishing without a trace, the portrait was missing for over 250 years, with the painting’s next recorded owner Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska
Izabela’s son, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, had purchased da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, as a gift for his mother from Italy. The painting was later housed with him in Paris, where he lived in exile after his part in the failed November Uprising
In order to widen their family fortune, Izabela’s father arranged an engagement to her late mother’s cousin Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartorysk.
Throughout their marriage Izabela would dress up in her husband’s regiment uniform and pass herself off as a young man to allow her more freedoms – once being mistaken for a Danish prince.
According to her own admission, she was ‘never beautiful, but had often been pretty’, with the princess describing herself as having ‘beautiful eyes and an elegant figure’ but felt her bust was ‘too thin’ and her hands ‘ugly’.
Despite her own blunt self-assessment, suitors from wide and far admired her – with one even saying the marks left from when she had smallpox as a child added to her charm.
Even Benjamin Franklin was among her admirers, having met her in London and asked for a private audience to show off a glass harmonica he had invented.
In 1796, the princess pulled together a collection of art in Puławy to be exhibited publicly in what would later become the Czartoryski Museum, the first of its kind in Poland.
Two years later, Izabela’s son, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, as a gift for his mother from Italy – along with Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael.
The remarkable story of the portrait – which is one of only four da Vinci paintings of women still in existence – has been told in Eden Collinsworth’s new book, titled What the Ermine Saw
But upon receiving the gift, Izabela erroneously emblazoned LA BELE FERONIERE onto the front of the painting, incorrectly identifying it as the mistress of Francis I.
The painting stayed within the Princess’ possession until 1830, when an armed rebellion against the Russian Empire caused an 84-year-old Czartoryska to remove it from her Pulawy museum and hid it at the family estate in Sieniawa.
After the failed November Uprising, Russian-occupied Poland lost its autonomy and became part of the Russian Empire – with Adam Jerzy Czartoryski exiled for his part in the revolution.
After briefly moving to London Adam Jerzy settled in Paris, eventually purchasing the Hôtel Lambert where Lady with an Ermine would remain until his death, aged 91 in 1861.
From exile, Adam Jerzy would build a career in politics, bitterly opposing Tsar Alexander’s successor, Nicholas I and advocating for the reestablishment of a sovereign Polish state.
After Adam Jerzy’s death, his estate went to his son with Prince Wladyslaw, who decided to move the painting to Dresden for safekeeping when the Franco-Prussian War struck.
The portrait was then briefly moved back to Krakow before returning to Dresden, where it was cared for by the Royal Collection Trust, ahead of the emergence of the First Word War.
While in Dresden, German art historian Hans Posse would first lay his eyes on the painting and was so enthralled with the piece he attempted to delay its return to Kraków in 1920.
Nearly two decades later, in 1939, Posse was appointed special art envoy to adult Hitler, charged with overseeing the organisation of stolen art from German-occupied Poland.
In order to widen their family fortune, Izabela’s father arranged an engagement to her late mother’s cousin Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartorysk (pictured)
He was instructed to commence the Führermuseum project, obtaining works of art by confiscation both to supplement Hitler’s personal collection and to place in an unrealised museum in the Austrian city of Linz, near his birthplace of Braunau.
The special commision was set up in Dresden and their first inspection began in Munich, where he selected pictures from a depot of confiscated property from German Jews.
In Vienna he would sort through another eight thousand pieces, all while keeping a meticulous record of what would become ‘the institutional plunder of one-fifth of Europe’s artistic patrimony’.
By the time the art commision was set up, Lady with an Ermine was in possession of Władysław Czartoryski’s grandson, Augustyn Józef Czartoryski and his mother Maria Ludwika Krasińska
From Milan to Poland and Germany, a timeline of Lady with an Ermine’s history
1486-90 – Ludovico commissions Leonardo to paint a portrait of his mistress Cecilia
1491 – Cecilia is married to Count Ludovico Carminati de Brambilla and leaves the Castello with the painting
1498 – Cecilia lends the painting to Ludovico’s wife’s sister
1536 – Cecilia dies with no trace of Lady with an Ermine
1799-1800 – Price Adam Jerzy buys the painting for his mother Princess Izabela
1830 – Painting is moved to the family estate in Sieniawa
1843 – The painting is sent to Adam Jerzy at the Hotel Lambert
1870 – Prince Wladyslaw moves the painting to Dresden
1874 – Lady with an Ermine returns to Krakow
1914 – The painting is sent back to Dresden before the First World War
1920 – Lady with an Ermine returns to Krakow once again
1939 – The painting is hidden in Sieniawa before being found by the Gestapo and sent to Berlin for safekeeping
1941 – Lady with an Ermine is sent to Hans Frank in Krakow
1945 – Frank moves the portrait to his holiday villa in Bavaria
1946 – The painting is housed at a warehouse in Munich
1949 – Lady with an Ermine returns to the National Museum in Krakow
1952 – The painting is leant to the National Museum in Warsaw
1972 – Lady with an Ermine was displayed in Russia
1993 – 2011 – The portrait is exhibited globally
2016 – The Czartoryski family collection is sold and donated to the Polish government
While the official owner of the estate was Augustyn, it was his mother who arranged the majority of the protective measures to ensure their painting remained in the family collection.
The Countess deployed sandbags outside the museum, first aid kits and gas masks for staff and instructions to all employees to protect their most valuable items at all costs.
The family’s three most precious paintings, by da Vinci Raphael and Rembrandt, were once again transported to their estate in Sieniawa -where Izabel had hidden the painting a century before during Poland’s November Uprising.
While Augustyn, his wife and mother fled the family estate to their palace in the south-eastern village of Pełkinie, their housekeeper Zofia Szmit decided to stay in Sieniawa.
The housekeeper had no idea the painting, among other valuable works of art, was hidden there – having been transported to the palace by the family secretly in the dead of night.
After a German troop of soldiers made camp on the estate for three days, Zofia discovered that one of the doors on one of the outbuildings had been damaged and decided to investigate.
In the outhouse she discovered that vaults containing the collection had been demolished with the goods stolen, and that the wooden chest containing the most valuable paintings had been pried open.
But astonishingly, it seemed that the German troops had no idea of the value of the piece and had opted for smaller objects – leaving Lady with an Ermine propped up against a wall with a bootmark on it.
With the help of two other Polish women who had remained in the area, Zofia cleaned off the bootmark and placed the portrait in a makeshift cover by sewing together two pillow cases.
They managed to keep the portrait safe before Augustyn travelled from Pełkinie to retrieve ahead of the next wave of German soldiers.
Despite the family’s efforts, it was no longer just Hans Posse after the painting, with Hans Frank – Hitler’s representative in Krakow – and SS officer Kajetan Muhlmann who were desperate to get their hands on the artistic treasure.
Eventually, the painting was located by the Gestapo at the Pelkinie Palace, where they also discovered Augustyn and his wife, Princess María de los Dolores of Bourbon-Two Sicilies.
Due to his wife’s royal status the pair were granted passage to Spain while the painting was sent to Krakow, Warsaw and then Dresden, were Hans Posse was waiting at the platform.
While deciding whether to keep the painting for Hitler’s personal collection or the collection in Austria, Posse decided to transfer the treasure to Berlin for safe keeping.
By 1941, Hans Frank had ordered the painting to be delivered by Kajetan Muhlmann to his base at Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków – where it hung over the desk he used to organise trains that would take Jews to their deaths.
In his role as head of the General Government in Nazi-occupied Poland, Frank would promote German cultural projects while overseeing the attempted eradication of Polish culture
By looting libraries and art collections across the country, seventy-five thousand manuscripts, twenty five thousand maps, and ninety thousand books were destroyed after being identified as pillars of Polish culture.
Frank ordered for street names to be changed and monuments to be blown up while professors at the University of Krakow were imprisoned and killed in German concentration camps.
Lawyers, civil servants, doctors, businessmen and clergy were also killed – with 90 per cent of Polish Jews murdered throughout the Second World War.
Left, reichminister Hans Frank, the administrational Chief of the German occupied Polish territories. Right, Hans Posse, the German art historian responsible for collecting stolen art for Hitler’s ‘Führermuseum’ in Linz, Austria
Adolf Hitler waves to a crowd from a balcony as Storm Trooper commander and Reichstag president Hermann Goering stands alongside him
In Spring 1944, with Soviet forces advancing in eastern Poland, Frank prepared to evacuate his castle and made arrangements’ for the painting to be transported to safety.
After being transported to another palace belonging to a former associate, the portrait was moved to Frank’s summer villa in Bavaria, where he received a visit from the general director of the Bavarian State Museums.
He ordered Frank return the painting to be sent to a secret location, however when nobody showed up, Frank decided to hold on to the painting.
Hitler had intended for Lady with an Ermine to be destroyed in the Decree Concerning Demolitions in the Reich Territory, or the Nero Decree, aiming to obliterate anything of value in Germany ahead of his death.
The secret location was a complex of salt mines in the Austrian town of Altaussee, where eight bombs had been placed in tunnels which were fortunately intercepted by Allied forces ahead of detonating.
Had the plan succeeded paintings including Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and Vermeer’s Astronomer would have been burned to the ground.
Frank was arrested on May 4th, 1945 and tried at Nuremberg where he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death.
After Frank’s arrest, the painting was placed at a Munich Warehouse before being transported to Communist Poland and warehoused in Krakow.
By 1949 it had been incorporated into the National Museum in Krakow and travelled briefly to Warsaw before being returned and displayed in Russia at the Pushkin museum.
In 1991, Polish courts recognised Adam Karol Czartoryski as the sole heir to the family collection – which continues to be housed in the National Museum in Kraków.
After being exhibited around the world, the Czartoryski family collection was sold and donated to the Polish government for a reported $105million in 2016 – said to be only five percent of its estimated value.
What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait by Eden Collinsworth by Doubleday Books will be released on May 24th
The story behind Lady with an Ermine: How Cecilia Gallerani entranced the Italian court and won the love of a cruel duke
Lady with an Ermine was born five hundred and thirty years after Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan, commissioned famous painter Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of his beloved mistress Cecilia Gallerani.
Ludovico was the son of Francesco Sforza, a second generation Condottiere who commanded a vicious mercenary company during the Middle Ages and was said to be so strong he was able to bed metal with his hands.
After being hired to defend Milan from Venetian invasion, Francesco laid siege to the region himself – stealing the dukedom and lands from the the Visconti’s dynasty – later adding insult to injury by marrying Bianca Maria Visconti.
Her first son, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, was known for being a cruel and sadistic man – with the court gossiping that it was him who killed their mother Bianca.
His barbaric perversions included forcing a poacher to swallow an entire hare live, nailing a man to a coffin burying him alive, and savagely raping daughters and wives before letting them be assaulted by his guards.
Lady with an Ermine was born five hundred and thirty years after Ludovico Sforza (pictured), the duke of Milan, commissioned famous painter Leonardo da Vinci to paint a portrait of his beloved mistress Cecilia Gallerani
Galeazzo Maria Sforza (pictured) was known for being a cruel and sadistic man – with the court gossiping that he killed his own mother, Bianca
In 1467, he was murdered by three noblemen – one of which had a sister who was raped by Galeazzo – and his seven-year-old son became duke, with his mother acting regent.
Despite no official title Ludovico ruled over the region and its suspected he quickly had his child nephew murdered to cement his power.
In 1482, da Vinci arrived in his court, having left florence with unfinished commissions and debt, and took up residence in the Milanese Castello.
Despite having several mistress’, no woman truly caught Ludovico’s eye until Cecilia, who was the daughter of a financial agent of the Milanese court, who died when she was seven.
Cecilia was from a good family, but not a wealthy one, and she was ten when a financial contract was drawn up for her to marry 24-year-old Stefano Visconti.
However their marriage never took place – presumably because the then 12-year-old Cecilia had caught Ludovico’s attention and was soon found travelling to Milan under his protection.
She charmed both Ludovico and the Milanese court, with the duke writing that she was ‘candid and beautiful and more than I could ever desire’.
As his prima favourita Cecilia was comfortable in his palace, however their relationship would soon be disturbed when it came time for Ludovico to fulfil his conjugal vow.
A marriage for Ludovico had been agreed when he was in his late 30s, stating he would marry Beatrice d’Este, who was 15.
A marriage for Ludovico had been agreed when he was in his late 30s, stating he would marry Beatrice d’Este (pictured), who was 15
Celia was pregnant with his love child and the duke instructed lawyers to draw up an overly complicated marriage document in order to delay time – however in 1941, a date was selected by a court astrologer for marriage to Beatrice.
After his marriage to Beatrice, Cecelia remained in the castle with their illegitimate son – with Lady with an Ermine remaining hung on the walls of his private apartment.
To flex her power, a jealous Beatrice vowed that her rival was not able to wear any dress featuring the slightest display of embroidered gold.
But when that didn’t work, she demanded the young woman and her son leave the castle for good, with Ludovico arranging a marriage for her with Carminati de’Branbilla.
Ludovico deeded them a palace, where Lady with an Ermine remained until Beatrice’s sister Isabella – who had grown jealous of her sisters riches and wanted to taunt her with the picture – begged for it to be lent temporarily back to the palace.
However the picture was never returned to Cecelia and there is no record of what happened to Lady with Ermine after her death in 1536.