Lady with an Ermine

The Lady with an Ermine[n 1] (Italian: Dama con l'ermellino [ˈdaːma kon lermelˈliːno]; Polish: Dama z gronostajem) is a portrait painting widely attributed to the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Dated to c.1489–1491, the work is painted in oils on a panel of walnut wood. Its subject is Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of Ludovico Sforza ("Il Moro"), Duke of Milan; Leonardo was painter to the Sforza court at the time of its execution. It is one of only four surviving portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being Ginevra de' Benci, La Belle Ferronnière and the Mona Lisa.[2]

Lady with an Ermine
Italian: Dama con l'ermellino,
Polish: Dama z gronostajem
ArtistLeonardo da Vinci
MediumOil on walnut panel
SubjectCecilia Gallerani
Dimensions54 cm × 39 cm (21 in × 15 in)
LocationCzartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland

The Princes Czartoryski Collection, including the Lady with an Ermine, was sold for 100 million on 29 December 2016 to the Polish government by Princes Czartoryski Foundation, represented by Adam Karol Czartoryski, the last direct descendant of Izabela Czartoryska Flemming and Adam George Czartoryski, who brought the painting to Poland from Italy in 1798.[3][4][5] It is now housed at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, and is one of Poland's national treasures.[6]



The Lady with an Ermine was executed in oils on a small, 54 × 39 cm (21 × 15 in) walnut wood panel.[7] Oil paint was relatively new to Italy at the time, having been introduced in the 1470s, and walnut was a wood favored by Leonardo,[8] but not commonly used by other artists in Lombardy at the time.[9] The wood is thin and about 4–5 millimetres (0.16–0.20 in) thick and is presumably from the same tree as the wood for his later portrait, La Belle Ferronnière.[1] The work is prepared with a layer of white gesso and a layer of brownish underpaint.[10] The painting shows a half-height woman turned toward her right at a three-quarter angle, but with her face turned toward her left.[11]

The Lady

The subject has been identified with reasonable certainty as Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo's employer, Ludovico Sforza.[12] Her gaze is directed neither straight ahead nor toward the viewer, but toward a "third party" beyond the picture's frame.[13] Gallerani holds a small white-coated stoat, known as an ermine. Her dress is comparatively simple, revealing that she is not of noble birth or noble descent.[14] Her coiffure, known as a coazone, confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of it bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band, and a sheath over the plait.[15]

As in many of Leonardo's paintings, the composition comprises a pyramidic spiral and the sitter is caught in the motion of turning to her left, reflecting Leonardo's lifelong preoccupation with the dynamics of movement.[16] The three-quarter profile portrait was one of his many innovations. Il Moro's court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni, was the first to propose that Cecilia was poised as if listening to an unseen speaker.[17] This work in particular shows Leonardo's expertise in painting the human form. Cecilia's outstretched hand was painted in great detail, with every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger.[18]

The ermine

The Ermine Hunt (c. 1490), a pen and ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

The animal resting in Cecilia's arms is usually known as an ermine. Commentators have noted that it is too large to be an actual ermine,[19] but its size is explained by its being of a largely symbolic nature. The art historian Luke Syson notes that "Naturalism is not the point here; Leonardo has created a mythical beast, the composite of several animals he drew at this time".[20] There are several interpretations of the ermine's significance and they are often used in combination with each other.[19][21][22] In its winter coat, the ermine was a traditional symbol of purity and moderation,[20] as it was believed it would face death rather than soil its white coat.[22]

In his old age, Leonardo compiled a bestiary in which he recorded: "The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity."[23] He repeats this idea in another note, "Moderation curbs all the vices. The ermine prefers to die rather than soil itself."[24] A drawing by Leonardo in pen and ink of c. 1490, housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, depicts an ermine representing these ideals by surrendering to a hunter.[7] The ermine has also been noted to have a personal significance to Ludovico Sforza, as he would use it as a personal emblem, having been appointed by Ferdinand I as a member of the Order of the Ermine in 1488.[22] Alternatively, the ermine could be a pun on Cecilia's surname: The Ancient Greek term for ermine, or other weasel-like species of animals, is galê (γαλῆ) or galéē (γαλέη).[21] Such allusions were particularly popular in Renaissance culture;[19] Leonardo himself had done something similar in his earlier work, Ginevra de' Benci, when he surrounded Ginevra with a juniper tree, or ginepro in Italian.[25] Krystyna Moczulska suggests that the ermine follows the meaning of an ermine or weasel in classical literature, where it relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting's creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico's illegitimate son.[1]


It was not until the 20th century that the Lady with an Ermine was widely accepted by scholars to be a work of Leonardo.[1] The attribution is due to the style of chiaroscuro, intricate detail and "contemplative tone" typical of Leonardo.[26]


Scholars date the painting to 1489–1491.[n 2]



The sitter has been identified with reasonable certainty as Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo's employer, Ludovico Sforza.[n 3]

Gallerani was a member of a large family that was neither wealthy nor noble. Her father served for a time at the Duke's court. At the time of the portrait, she was about sixteen years old and was renowned for her beauty, scholarship and poetry.[29] She was married at approximately age six to a young nobleman of the house of Visconti, but sued to annul the marriage in 1487 for undisclosed reasons and the request was granted. She became the Duke's mistress and bore him a son, even after his marriage to Beatrice d'Este eleven years previously.[30] Beatrice was promised to the Duke when she was only five, and married him when she was sixteen in 1491. After a few months, she discovered the Duke was still seeing Gallerani, and forced the Duke to end the relationship by having her married to Count Ludovico Carminati di Brambilla, also known as Il Bergamino. The newly-wed couple was moved to Palazzo Carmagnola in Milan.[31]


"Monuments Men" – Frank P. Albright, Everett Parker Lesley, Joe D. Espinosa – and Polish liaison officer Karol Estreicher pose with the painting upon its return to Poland in April 1946.[32]

It has always been known that Leonardo painted a portrait of Ludovico Sforza's mistress,[33] Cecilia Gallerani, but the Lady with an Ermine remained largely unknown to scholars until nearly the 20th century.[34] The painting was acquired in Italy in 1798 by Prince Adam George Czartoryski, the son of Izabela Czartoryska Flemming and Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, and incorporated into the Czartoryski family collections at Puławy in 1800. The inscription on the top-left corner of the painting, LA BELE FERONIERE. LEONARD DAWINCI., was probably added by a restorer shortly after its arrival in Poland,[28] and before the background was overpainted.[35] Czartoryski was clearly aware it was a Leonardo, although the painting had never been discussed in print; no record exists of any previous owner. The Belle Ferronière is the Leonardo portrait in the Louvre, whose sitter bears such a close resemblance; the Czartoryskis considered this sitter to be the same.[36]

The painting travelled widely during the 19th century. During the November Uprising in 1830, the 84-year-old Princess Czartoryska rescued it in advance of the invading Russian army, hid it, and sent it 100 miles south to the Czartoryski palace at Sieniawa.[37] Soon after, it was transferred to the Czartoryski place of exile in Paris, the Hôtel Lambert. The family returned to Poland in 1869, settling in Kraków. In the tumultuous aftermath of the German occupation of Paris in 1871 and the Commune, the family brought the painting to Kraków in 1876[37] and the museum opened in 1878. During World War I, the painting was moved to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister[38] in Dresden for safe-keeping,[39] returning to Kraków in 1920.

In 1939, anticipating the German occupation of Poland, it was again moved to Sieniawa,[37] but it was discovered and seized by the Nazis and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. In 1940, Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland, saw the painting there and requested it be returned to Kraków, where it hung in his suite of offices in the Wawel Castle. In 1941, it was transferred to a warehouse of other plundered art in Breslau. In 1943 it was brought back to Kraków and exhibited at the Wawel Castle.[37] At the end of the Second World War it was discovered by Allied troops in Frank's country home in Schliersee, Bavaria, and was returned to Poland in 1946. It was again placed on exhibit at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków. Throughout the mid–late 20th century the work traveled the world more extensively than any other Leonardo painting, being exhibited in Warsaw (1952), Moscow (1972), Washington, D.C. (1991/92), Malmö (1993/94), Rome/Milan (1998), Florence (1999).[1]

The work remained displayed at the Czartoryski Museum until it closed for renovations in 2010. From May 2017 to 2019, it was exhibited in the National Museum, Kraków, just outside the Old Town. It returned to the Czartoryski Museum for the museum's reopening on December 19, 2019.[40]


The Lady with an Ermine has been subjected to two detailed laboratory examinations. The first was in the Warsaw Laboratories, with the findings published by Kazimierz Kwiatkowski in 1955.[41] It underwent examination and restoration again in 1992 at the Washington National Gallery Laboratories under the supervision of David Bull.[10]

The panel is in good condition apart from a break to the upper left side.[42] The earliest known photograph of the painting taken in the early 20th century shows that the corner was already damaged by that time.[42] The background was thinly overpainted with unmodulated black, probably between 1830 and 1870, when the damaged corner was restored.[43] Eugène Delacroix was suggested to have painted the background. Its previous colour was a bluish grey.[10] The signature LEONARD D'AWINCI (which is the Polish phonetical transcription of the name "da Vinci") in the upper left corner is not original.[44] X-ray and microscopic analysis show the charcoal-pounced outline of the pricked preparatory drawing on the prepared undersurface, a technique Leonardo learned in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio.[45] Apart from the black of the background and some abrasion caused by cleaning, the painted surface reveals that the painting is almost entirely by the artist's hand. There has been some slight retouching of the figure's features in red, and the edge of the veil in ochre. Some scholars believe there also was some later retouching of the hands.[10] Leonardo's fingerprints have been found in the surface of the paint, indicating that he used his fingers to blend his delicate brush strokes.[46]


  1. Sometimes known as the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani,[1] or the Portrait of an Unknown Woman
  2. Scholars date the painting to c.1489–1491:
  3. Martin Kemp states "the identification of the sitter in this painting as Cecilia Gallerani is reasonably secure."[27] Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi discuss the career of this identification since it was first suggested in 1900.[28]


  1. Zöllner 2019, p. 226.
  2. Palmer 2018, p. 79.
  3. Berendt, Joanna (29 December 2016). "Poland Buys Czartoryski Family Art Collection". New York Times. Retrieved 22 December 2019.
  4. "Leonardo da Vinci, "Dama z gronostajem"". Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie (in Polish). 2017. Retrieved 26 May 2017.
  5. "Dlaczego warto było zapłacić 100 mln euro za kolekcję z "Damą z gronostajem"". (in Polish). Retrieved 17 January 2020.
  6. "Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine among Poland's "Treasures" – Event –". Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Retrieved 18 November 2017.
  7. Zöllner 2015, p. 45.
  8. Isaacson 2017, p. 237.
  9. Zöllner 2019, p. 225.
  10. Bull 1992a.
  11. Pedretti 2006, p. 64.
  12. Kemp 2019, p. 49.
  13. Isaacson, Walter (31 May 2019). Leonardo da Vinci (in Polish). Insignis. ISBN 9788366360020.
  14. Ragai, Jehane (22 July 2015). Scientist And The Forger, The: Insights Into The Scientific Detection Of Forgery In Paintings. World Scientific Publishing Company. p. 132. ISBN 9781783267422.
  15. Notes for a portrait: the Lady's dress and hairstyle Archived 2019-03-30 at the Wayback Machine, Grazietta Butazzi, Exhibition notes, 1998
  16. Palmer 2018, p. 121.
  17. Constantino 2001, p. 46.
  18. Isaacson 2019.
  19. Kemp 2019, p. 50.
  20. Syson et al. 2011, p. 113.
  21. Clark 1961, p. 96.
  22. Marani 2003, p. 170.
  23. Beck 1993, p. 188. Beck adds, "the artist left a pictorial record to accompany his written testimony—the famous Portrait of a Lady with an ermine (Czartoryski Collection, Cracow)
  24. Beck 1993, p. 191.
  25. Zöllner 2015, p. 20.
  26. Vezzosi 1997, p. 60.
  27. Kemp, Martin. "The Lady with an Ermine". Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Washington-New Haven-London. pp. 271f.
  28. Shell & Sironi 1992.
  29. Beard 2018, p. 26.
  30. Who was Cecilia Gallerani? Archived 2018-10-01 at the Wayback Machine, Barbara Fabjan and Pietro C. Marani, Exhibition notes, October 15, 1998
  31. Francesca Bonazzoli and Michele Robecchi, Portraits Unmasked: The Stories Nehind the Faces, Prestel, Munich, 2020. ISBN 9783791386201, pp. 10–13.
  32. "The Archives; Photos". Monuments Men Foundation. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  33. Syson et al. 2011, p. 111.
  34. Zöllner 2019, p. 158.
  35. Bull 1992, p. 78.
  36. Żygulski, Zdzisław (2009). Dzieje zbiorów Puławskich (in Polish). Poland: Fundacja Książąt Czartoryskich. p. 198. ISBN 9788391525050.
  37. Muchnic 2003.
  38. "Leonardo da Vinci "Lady with an Ermine"". Wawel Royal Castle. Archived from the original on 7 July 2017.
  39. Stanford 2011.
  40. "Kraków reopens Czartoryski Museum". Retrieved 17 January 2020.
  41. Bik, Katarzyna (13 February 2012). ""Dama z gronostajem" Leonarda Da Vinci wróciła do Krakowa". Rynek i Sztuka. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  42. Artibus Et Historiae. IRSA and University of Virginia. 1992. p. 79.
  43. Dec, Dorota; Wałek, Janusz. "Dama z gronostajem - portret Cecylii Gallerani (ok. 1473-1536)". Zbiory MNK. National Museum in Kraków. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  44. "The first lady of the Renaissance visits Spain". El País. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  45. Bull 1992, pp. 76ff.
  46. Bull 1992, p. 81.


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  • Clark, Kenneth (1961). Leonardo da Vinci. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books. OCLC 187223.
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  • Palmer, Allison Lee (2018). Leonardo da Vinci: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works (Significant Figures in World History). Lanham, Maryland, US: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-5381-1977-8.
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  • Pedretti, Carlo (2006). Leonardo da Vinci. Surrey, UK: Taj Books International. ISBN 978-1-8440-6036-8.
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Journals and articles
  • Beck, James (1993). "The Dream of Leonardo da Vinci". Artibus et Historiae. 14 (27): 185–198. doi:10.2307/1483451. JSTOR 1483451.
  • Brown, David Alan (1983). "Leonardo and the Idealized Portrait in Milan". Arte Lombarda. 64 (4): 102–116. JSTOR 43105426.
  • Bull, David (1992). "Two Portraits by Leonardo: "Ginevra de' Benci" and the "Lady with an Ermine"". Artibus et Historiae. 13 (25): 67–83. doi:10.2307/1483457. JSTOR 1483457.
  • Kemp, Martin (February 1985). "Leonardo da Vinci: Science and the Poetic Impulse". Royal Society of Arts. 133 (5343): 196–214. JSTOR 41373924.
  • Kemp, Martin (2003). "Leonardo da Vinci". Grove Art Online. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T050401. ISBN 9781884446054. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • Shell, Janice; Sironi, Grazioso (1992). "Cecilia Gallerani: Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine". Artibus et Historiae. 13 (25): 47–66. doi:10.2307/1483456. JSTOR 1483456.

Further reading

  • Fabjan, Barbara; Marani, Pietro C. (1998). Da Leonardo: La Dama con l'ermellino [From Leonardo: The Lady with an Ermine] (in Italian). Milan, Italy: Silvana. ISBN 978-88-8215-100-3.
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