As I said on the post below, I may be revisiting Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan. And I am … to consider the ermine. In folklore the ermine was a symbol of purity, because it was supposed to prefer death to the defilement of its snowy coat. Or so says Francesca Kay in A Lady with Two Faces (from Intelligent Life). I’m in love with her opening paragraph; I’m immediately absorbed into the story.
Consider the ermine: a stoat in winter fur. Stoats are small and fierce and quick and feral; they kill by biting the necks of their prey; they are said to mesmerise their larger victims with a snake-like dance. And now look at Leonardo da Vinci’s ermine, resting quietly, although still very much alert, in the loose grip of his mistress. His left paw is upraised in a heraldic gesture. He has intelligent eyes, his mouth is closed over sharp teeth, his fur is soft and creamy, and his owner’s long fingers rest gently on him. This is a beautiful, sleek creature, a beloved pet.
The lady is Cecilia Gallerani, aged about 16 when her portrait was painted, c.1490, and at that time the favourite mistress of Lodovico Sforza, the immensely powerful Duke of Milan. In the year after she was painted, Cecilia gave birth to Lodovico’s son, and Lodovico married Beatrice d’Este, who soon ensured her rival was dismissed. …
Francesca Kay beautifully concludes that Lady with an Ermine is “above all a painting of supreme harmony, the creation of a perfect whole through total mastery of line and shadow, light and form.”
Read the article if you get a chance.
I then happened upon a writer named Ian Rivedon who had “seized the opportunity” to see the exhibition. He wrote about it on his blog post Leonardo’s Women. He had fallen in love with Cecilia and Beatrice.
The stars of the show are undoubtedly two of the most beautiful works of art that I have ever seen. They are The Belle Ferronière, a painting of Beatrice d’Este, the wife of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and The Lady with an Ermine, which is a painting of Cecilia Gallerani, his teenage mistress.
They are displayed together in one room along with several other paintings of women from Leonardo’s school. They are, all of them, wonderful, but serve only to illuminate the brilliance of Beatrice, and even more so Cecilia.
Much thought has gone into how they are hung, Cecilia in pride of place in the centre of the end wall of the room, with Beatrice adjacent to her on the left side-wall. The effect of this imaginitive positioning is stunning. Looked at from the diagonally opposite corner of the room, it seems that Beatrice is looking, apprehensively, over her shoulder at her young rival. …
Ian has a rather fanciful interpretation. Wikipedia tells me that Beatrice d’Este “was one of the most beautiful and accomplished princesses of the Italian Renaissance. She had been carefully educated, and in 1492 she visited Venice as ambassador for her husband in his political schemes. Beatrice showed great political ability. However, her brilliant career was cut short by death through childbirth, on the 3rd of January 1497 at the age of 22”
I guess there’s not too much more to say about Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan that hasn’t already been said by somebody else. Except for that I’m glad I was able to see it with them.