1 Toshicage

The Lady With An Ermine Analysis Essay

Leonardo da Vinci
Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani), c. 1490
Oil on panel, 54.8 x 40.3 cm (21 5/8 x 15 7/8 in.)
Muzeum Czartoryskich, Krakow
Scala/Art Resource, NY

1. Embracing a lover

Like the painting by Ambrogio de Predis of Bianca Maria Sforza, Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine was made at the court of Milan, where was in residence between 1482 and 1499. It almost certainly depicts Cecilia Gallerani, who was then mistress of duke (discussed earlier).

Here, the formal conventions of Bianca’s state portrait—especially the profile pose—are relaxed. Instead, Leonardo turned Cecilia three-quarters to open her body to the viewer. She seems to have paused, stopping for a moment to direct her attention outside the picture frame. Almost certainly it is Ludovico who is meant to be the object of her lively gaze. Renaissance poets and courtiers were unanimous in believing that a person first fell in love through the eyes, which they called the “guides of love.” For them, eyes revealed passion more effectively than did speech.

With long fingers, Cecilia cradles an ermine against her body, an unusually active gesture in a portrait of a woman. Painted somewhat larger than life, the ermine was one of Ludovico’s emblems, but ermine—galee in Greek—is also a play on Cecilia’s surname (and one of the clues by which she was identified as the subject of this portrait). Few other animals appear with such prominence in Renaissance art. Its symbolic intent is clear: the ermine stands in for the duke, who receives his lover’s embrace by proxy.

This innovative portrait achieved a certain measure of fame in its own time. , sister of the duke’s wife, Beatrice, wrote to Cecilia requesting to borrow it. Isabella was in the market for a new portraitist (one she hoped could conceal her girth). (Read Cecilia’s reply to Isabella in “Lorenzo de’ Medici on love and beauty.”) Their exchange reveals the extent to which Cecilia was accepted openly as a member of court (although of lower status than either Beatrice or Bianca). Her direct dealing with her lover’s sister-in-law also indicates the tolerance shown toward the affairs of powerful men. As was often the case among royal mistresses, Cecilia was eventually married off to a minor nobleman.

Matteo de’ Pasti
Isotta degli Atti, Mistress, then Wife of Sigismondo Malatesta [obverse]; The Malatesta Elephant [reverse], 1446
Bronze, diameter 8.4 cm (3 5/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art

2. Mistress and wife

Like Cecilia, Isotta degli Atti was the mistress of a powerful man, the of Rimini. Unlike most other mistresses, however, she also became her lover’s (third) wife. We see her on two medals by . The inscription on the first reads, “To Isotta of Rimini: the ornament of Italy for beauty and virtue.”

The dates of their affair are not entirely clear, but Sigismondo may have met Isotta in 1445, when she was probably twelve years old and he was twenty-six. He was already married to his second wife, and with a mistress as well. Isotta, daughter of a wealthy wool merchant and counselor to Sigismondo, likely became his lover the next year. Her age (sixteen at most) must be considered in the context of Renaissance norms, when girls of fourteen or younger were commonly wed. Sigismondo’s legacy has been colored by a reputation for brutality and violence that began in his own day, when a pope who was aggressively allied against him described him as a monster (see “Condemnation of Sigismondo Malatesta”). But Sigismondo was also a patron of the arts and letters—and he seems to have been devoted to Isotta (although his feelings did not prevent his taking other mistresses as years went by). She, not his wife, quickly became the focus of court life in Rimini; she also came to enjoy a considerable literary reputation. A number of poets, who became known as the Isottei, wrote poems about her. When—in 1454 or possibly 1456, some years after his wife’s death in 1449—Isotta and Sigismondo married, the groom might well have benefited from another, more strategic match.

Matteo de’ Pasti
Isotta degli Atti, Mistress, then Wife of Sigismondo Malatesta [obverse]; Closed Book [reverse], 1446
Bronze, diameter 8.4 cm (3 5/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art

 The willingness and affection of the women who became mistresses of powerful men are difficult to gauge, but it is possible that Isotta was similarly committed. At least that is the impression conveyed by the Liber Isottaeus, a three-volume work in Latin that Sigismondo commissioned from the humanist Basinio da Parma in her honor. The book, with the word “elegies” around it, appears on the reverse of the second of Matteo’s medals bearing her image. The story treats their romance as one of courtly love (see “A poem from Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta to Isotta degli Atti”). At one point in the epistolary narrative, Isotta’s father questions her about the wisdom of surrendering her chastity. Her response is essentially, “What can one do in the face of such love?” In real life, Isotta seems to have been clear-eyed and practical, receiving substantial amounts in goods and gems before securing her position with marriage. Her brother was knighted. Isotta was not strong enough, however, to rule in her own right after Sigismondo died in 1468, and their son seems to have been incapable. Another of Sigismondo’s illegitimate children took control in 1470, but Isotta continued to live in Rimini, in her own house.

Sigismondo had the elephant medal cast around the time he married Isotta, but the date on it, 1446, is at least ten years earlier than the actual date. The same date appears on several other medals and on the elaborate tomb he had constructed for her in the Tempio Malatestiano. It is tempting to see 1446 as commemorating the start of their affair (although it has also been argued that it marks the completion of Castel Sismondo, which appears on the reverse of another of Sigismondo’s medals). The medals, like the tomb, were meant to serve Isotta’s eternal memory, a meaning signified by the elephant. Copies of the medals were set into the walls and foundations of various buildings that Sigismondo constructed, to be discovered by later generations. Some came to light only after the bombing around Rimini during World War II.

Medal of Sigismondo Pandolfo

Leon Battista Alberti
Façade Tempio Malatestiano, c. 1450
Rimini, Italy
Scala/Art Resource, NY

After Matteo de’ Pasti
Medal of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta San Francesco at Rimini [reverse], 1450
Bronze, diameter 4 cm (1 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art

Isotta’s tomb was the raison d’être for Sigisimondo’s restoration of the church of S. Francesco, called the Tempio Malatestiano. designed the façade, while Matteo, sculptor of the medals discussed nearby, made much of the interior decoration. The building is a landmark in Renaissance architecture and marks the first time a Roman arch was used on a church. The reverse of another of Sigismondo’s medals shows the plan for the building, including a dome that was never built.


Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci [obverse], c. 1474/78
Oil on panel, 42.7 x 37 cm (16 13/16 x 14 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art

3. Portrait of a daughter? Wife? Platonic lover?

Most women’s portraits were painted on one of two occasions: betrothal or marriage. Some were destined for the new husband and household, while others (probably fewer) were kept by parents as a remembrance of a departing daughter. In paired wedding portraits, the woman is almost invariably shown facing left toward the man. Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, who looks right, was no doubt intended to stand alone. The question of who commissioned it and why may have several different answers and continues to excite scholarly debate. It is a puzzle that opens onto various aspects of the lives of men and women in fifteenth-century Florence.

A daughter in a wealthy banking family, Ginevra was married in 1474, at age sixteen, to a widower named Luigi Niccolini. Her portrait must have been painted around that time because its style is that of a young , just beginning to work out the innovations that would transform painting in the Renaissance. It differs, however, from other contemporary wedding portraits in several respects. Ginevra wears a simple brown dress, not the elaborate brocades of most brides, and she has no jewelry. Even more unusual, she turns in three-quarter pose, offering the viewer greater insight into her personality. If she remains enigmatic, even indecipherable, we still have a chance to consider what the artist himself called the “motions of the mind.” Ginevra’s is possibly the first Italian portrait of a woman to abandon the profile pose (although three-quarter views were already fairly common in male portraits in Italy and in female portraits in northern Europe). It predates Leonardo’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani by about fifteen years.

Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci [reverse], c. 1474/78
Oil on panel, 42.7 x 37 cm (16 13/16 x 14 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art

 Leonardo’s Ginevra is framed by a juniper bush, the spiky leaves of which were a conventional symbol of chastity, but also pun on her name: ginepro is Italian for juniper. On the reverse she is represented in emblematic terms. Against a faux-porphyry ground a wreath of laurel and palm branches surrounds a juniper sprig. Encircling the branches is a ribbon with the legend VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT (Beauty Adorns Virtue). The palm was associated with martyrs, and the laurel with chastity. But both also represented victory or fame, and the laurel, the tree sacred to Apollo, was particularly associated with literary accomplishment. Ginevra had a reputation in Florence as a poet, although we now possess only a single fragment of her verse: “I beg your forgiveness / I am a mountain tiger.”

The motto we see on the ribbon today, which extols the primary virtues desired of all Renaissance women, was painted over the one that had originally appeared there. It read VIRTU ET HONOR (Virtue and Honor). Venetian humanist Bernardo Bembo used the earlier motto and the laurel and palm wreath as a personal emblem—and these facts link this portrait to a platonic love affair between Ginevra and Bembo. Their devotion was well documented at the time; poets in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote several poems in celebration of their love, as did Lorenzo himself (see “Poems about Ginevra and Bembo”).

Bembo was in Florence twice as ambassador, between 1475 and 1476 and from 1478 to 1480. It was probably during his first stay, when he was forty-four, that he took Ginevra as his platonic lover. In doing so he was following Florentine fashion—Bembo and Ginevra may well have met at the joust sponsored by Giuliano de’ Medici in honor of his own platonic love, Simonetta. Through his devotion to a young Florentine woman renowned for her beauty, virtue, and intelligence, Bembo may have been seeking to reinforce his Florentine connections. Their affair arose during a period of some stress between Florence and Venice.

Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci [reverse], detail of original inscription VIRTU ET HONOR, c. 1474/78
Reflectogram of tempera on panel, overall 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 9/16 in.)
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art

Was this portrait the product of that platonic affair? The panel has been cut down—perhaps Ginevra’s hands and whatever she held, if anything, would have been clues. It has been suggested that Bembo commissioned both Ginevra’s portrait and the emblematic reverse. If so, the commission had to have been made soon after his first arrival in Florence, since a later date cannot be reconciled with Leonardo’s early style. It is perhaps more likely that Ginevra’s family ordered her portrait from the young painter. We know that Ginevra’s brother and Leonardo became lifelong friends; perhaps their friendship prompted the family to give the commission to Leonardo or perhaps it grew during the course of the painting’s execution. The Benci might have wanted this unusually serious-looking image of their brilliant poet-daughter—their “mountain tiger”—before her life was dominated by new roles as wife and mother (although Ginevra would remain childless). The family is more likely than Ginevra’s husband to have commissioned the portrait, given that so few conventional wedding elements appear in it.

Bembo might have added his motto and emblem to the reverse of the already existing portrait a bit later. But would the family have surrendered it to him? And would he not have wanted to take the picture of his ideal lover with him when he returned to Venice? The painting seems to have remained in Florence. Why was the motto repainted? A suggestion has been made recently that the portrait has little to do with a platonic affair and more with Ginevra as an independent-minded individual who eventually removed herself to a religious life among other strong-willed women. In this scenario, it is supposed that Ginevra worked with Leonardo to fashion the startling new way she was depicted. It is argued, too, that she first developed the emblem on the reverse, which Bembo only later adopted as his own, and which she subsequently reclaimed by modifying, and feminizing, the motto. At present the details remain impossible to know.

Original file ‎(3,488 × 4,560 pixels, file size: 7.33 MB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

File history

Click on a date/time to view the file as it appeared at that time.

current07:02, 25 November 20173,488 × 4,560 (7.33 MB)(talk | contribs)rv brightness changes. this makes the painting look washed out and changes the colors
23:22, 4 July 20143,488 × 4,560 (8.62 MB)(talk | contribs)-
23:19, 4 July 20143,488 × 4,560 (7.7 MB)(talk | contribs)Brightness
23:02, 4 July 20143,488 × 4,560 (7.33 MB)(talk | contribs)Dim, better quality
07:33, 5 June 2007733 × 1,000 (722 KB)(talk | contribs)== Summary == {{Information |Description= The Lady with an Ermine |Source= [The Lady with an Ermine http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Leonardo-Da-Vinci/Portrait-Of-Cecilia-Gallerani-Lady-With-An-Ermine.html] |Date= |Author= Leonardo Da Vinci }}
11:55, 21 June 2005567 × 749 (65 KB)(talk | contribs)Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci, 1483, oil on board, 40 x 55 cm. The Czartoryscy's Collection, National Museum in Kraków, Poland Source: . {{PD-Old}} Category:Poland; Leonardo da Vinci\
  • You cannot overwrite this file.

File usage on Commons

The following 8 pages link to this file:

File usage on other wikis

The following other wikis use this file:

View more global usage of this file.

Please do not overwrite this file: any restoration work should be uploaded with a new name and linked in this page's "" parameter, so that this file represents the exact file found in the institution catalog record to which it links. The metadata on this page was imported directly from institution's catalog record; additional descriptive text may be added by Wikimedians to the template below with the "" parameter, but please do not modify the other fields.
(Note: Editors who post this notice are strongly encouraged to add details explaining how it applies to this file.)


Alternative namesLeonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Leonardo
DescriptionItalian painter, engineer, astronomer, philosopher, anatomist and mathematician
Date of birth/death15 April 14522 May 1519
Location of birth/deathAnchianoClos Lucé
Work periodfrom 1466 until 1519
Work locationFlorence (1466–1482), Milan (1483–1499), Mantua (1499), Venice (1500), Florence (1500–1506), Milan (1506–1513), Florence (1507–1508), Rome (1513–1516), Amboise (1513–1518)
Authority control
TitleThe Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani). 
Datecirca 1490 Alternate: 1483-1490
Mediumoil and tempera on wood panel
Dimensions54.8 × 40.3 cm (1.7 × 1.3 ft)
Current location
Accession numberXII-209
Object history

commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Milan

: purchased by Adam Jerzy Czartoryski
InscriptionsCaption top left: LA BELE FERONIERE. LEONARD DAWINCI.
ReferencesM. Kemp, entry for The Lady with an Ermine in the exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (Washington-New Haven-London) pp 271f, states "the identification of the sitter in this painting as Cecilia Gallerani is reasonably secure;" Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, "Cecilia Gallerani: Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine" Artibus et Historiae13 No. 25 (1992:47-66) disscus the career of this identification since it was first suggested in 1900.
Source/PhotographerFrank Zöllner (2000). Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519. Taschen. ISBN 38-22859-79-6


Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *