WHAT THE ERMINE SAW: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait, by Eden Collinsworth
A self-possessed teenager gazes out from the velvety depths of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, her face luminous and inscrutable. Her name is almost certainly Cecilia Gallerani, but she is better known as the “Lady With an Ermine,” so named for the lithe white creature in her lap. One of only four known portraits Leonardo painted of women, this small, perfect canvas from 1490 has been prized by collectors for centuries – and caught up in the transformations of Europe’s history.
Gallerani was not only a beauty but also a talented poet, scholar and composer, a true Renaissance woman who beguiled the fierce Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The ermine – added by Leonardo in the second of three stages of this painting – is an allusion to Sforza, who was nicknamed “White Ermine”; it rests tame but potent in Gallerani’s hands, strangely erotic for a weasel.
Eden Collinsworth’s fourth book, “What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait,” traces the tumultuous history of Leonardo’s painting, from Sforza’s Renaissance court to Enlightenment-era Poland to the portrait’s theft by Nazi looters during the Second World War. With sometimes dizzying effect, Collinsworth – a former Hearst executive and now a think-tank chief of staff – vaults between granular detail and grand context. “What the Ermine Saw” bolts through wars and empires, art-making and state-making across the continent in the last 500 years.
The story is interrupted at moments when the painting has been lost to history. “Lady With an Ermine” disappeared for more than two centuries after Gallerani’s death, only to re-emerge around 1800, when the Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski purchased it on a tour of Napoleonic Italy; he gave the portrait to his mother, Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska.
Princess Izabela is the great revelation of Collinsworth’s rangy tale. A masterly politician and diplomat, she was also a devoted Polish nationalist and Enlightenment heroine: Born in 1746, she counted Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire among her admirers. She wore the uniform of her husband’s regiment on her honeymoon, traveling freely around Europe as a man.
When Poland was annexed by Russia at the end of the 18th century, Izabela devoted her energies to immortalizing Polish culture. At Pulawy, she built a museum to house her most valued treasures, alongside other European relics like chairs that belonged to Shakespeare and Rousseau, and the ashes of El Cid. After Czar Nicholas I crushed what was left of Poland’s autonomy in 1830, the Czartoryski family moved “Lady With an Ermine” to Paris for safekeeping, in the Hôtel Lambert, a hub for exiled Polish artists and intellectuals.
The painting’s fate was especially precarious during World War II, as it was highly coveted by Nazi art thieves. These included Hitler himself, whose “art envoy” Hans Posse tried to seize “Lady With an Ermine” for the planned Führermuseum in Austria. Bundled away in a pillowcase by a housekeeper in the Czartoryski family estate in eastern Poland, the painting was eventually located by the Gestapo. Hans Frank, the governor general who oversaw the genocide of Poland’s Jews, displayed “Lady With an Ermine” at his summer villa in Bavaria.
When Frank was arrested by American troops in 1945, the painting was recovered and returned to Krakow. The scale and subsequent restitution of the Nazi art thefts make for an enthralling story, and Collinsworth widens her focus to tell absorbing tales of heroic curators and art historians who painstakingly reassembled Europe’s cultural patrimony after the war.
A famous photograph documents the moment that the Monuments Men, who helped to recover “Lady With an Ermine” for the Allies, handed it off to the Polish art historian Karol Estreicher. In that image, Cecilia Gallerani gazes boldly beyond the guns and dust and din of the Krakow train station, her eyes a silent witness to Europe’s major cultural achievements, and its darkest atrocities.
WHAT THE ERMINE SAW: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait, by Eden Collinsworth | 253 pp. | Doubleday | $ 27
Erin Maglaque is the author of “Venice’s Intimate Empire.”