The Lady with the Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani)
Most Leonardo-experts consider the young woman to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Her eyes are turned towards her left shoulder, a pose which seems remarkably unstrained for the angle at which her head is turned. The ease of her posture is also suggested by the mellow gentleness of her childlike face, and by the manner in which her tightly-combed hair is wound around her chin like the flaps of a bonnet, its spherical rhythm echoed and varied by the double curves of the necklace looped twice around her neck. Her plainly arranged hair and averted gaze lend the sitter an air of chaste respectabality. Elucidation of the iconographical significance of the ermine, the sitter’s attribute, confirms this impression; the effect was evidently intended by both artist and patron. As early as the third century after Christ, in the moral bestiary of the «Physiologus», the ermine’s white fur made it a symbol of chastity and purity. As the Greek word for it is (gale), a knowledge of Classics would enable the spectator to see the name of the animal as a pseudo-etymological pun on the first two syllables of the sitter’s name (Gallerani). Witty conversational rhetoric of this kind was popular at the courts of Italian princes, and would often include puns on the names of important people. Furthermore, the ermine was one of the emblems on Lodovico’s coat of arms; its purpose here was therefore to call attention to his qualities and powers.
The artist’s subtle modulation of the ermine’s sinewy muscles and emphasis of its extended claws draw attention to the animal’s predatory nature, which, though diametrically opposed to its moral and religious significance, is consistent — even without recourse to psychoanalysis — with its obvious sexual symbolism, a metaphor reinforced by the vaginal symbolism of the slit sleeve. It is not unusual to find the theme of sexual potency in Italian Renaissance art (see Bronzino’s Andrea Doria as Neptune); what is interesting here is a ludic inclination in pointing to the equivocal nature of conventional morality: a woman was required to be not only chaste, but a devoted mistress.
The background, with the inscription «LA BELLE FERONIERE», was added later, and was not painted by Leonardo. The patination of the oil surface, however, intensifies the sharp outline and vivid presence of the fragile figure with her long, slender hand.
The painting is mentioned in a letter from Cecilia Galleram to Isabella d’Este, dated 29 April 1498. Isabella had asked Cecilia to send her the painting. Cecilia replied that she was unable to comply, since «it was painted at a time when she was still very young; in the meantime, however, her appearance had completely altered.» It is probably correct to assume that Leonardo painted the portrait when Cecilia became Lodovico’s mistress, in other words, shortly after 1481.