Leonardo’s endless curiosity regarding the form and function of all natural phenomena is attested to in his drawings, manuscripts and paintings. As nature could only be understood by direct “experience” or engagement with real life models, man, plants, animals, and the world that they inhabited became the subject of intense scrutiny in the quest for understanding of all natural things.
In his paintings and drawings, Leonardo produced a unique vision of the oneness of nature’s creations.
In his portrait of the Lady with an Ermine, man and nature are suffused with a shared vitality of motion and form. The curving, spiralling body of the ermine repeats the movement of the woman, who twists in space as her head and body seem to move in different directions. The elegant curve of her hand corresponds perfectly with the movement of the animal, the bent wrist echoing the raised, right paw of the ermine.
In this painting, human and animal are locked in a symbiotic relationship of interlocked motion, which results in a compositional rhythm that breathes life into both forms. The ermine provides a clue as to the sitter’s identity, being an allusion to her name ‘Gallerani’, which is reminiscent of the Greek work for ermine, “galée”. The creature is also a fitting attribute for a young woman as a symbol of purity and modesty.
A poem composed by Bellincioni, praised Ludovico Sforza for the portrait, responds to Nature’s envy that Leonardo has usurped her role.
In Leonardo's words
I once saw a painting which deceived a dog by means of the likeness of the painting to its master. The dog made a great fuss of it. And in a similar way I have seen dogs barking and trying to bite painted dogs, and a monkey who did an infinite number of stupid things in front of a painted monkey. I have seen swallows fly and perch on iron bars which have been painted as if they are projecting in front of the windows of buildings.
Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536) was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, and the mother of his son Cesare, who was born on 3rd May 1491. In 1492 she married Ludovico Carminati.
The animal cradled in Cecilia’s arms is an Ermine, which was a symbol of virtue and purity. It may also be a play on Cecilia’s name, as the Greek word for ermine is galée, and a reference to Ludovico Sforza, who was appointed a member of the Order of the Ermine by Ferdinand I of Naples in 1488.
The painting is described in a sonnet published in 1493, composed by the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni, who died in 1492. It is also mentioned in a letter from Isabella d’Este to Cecilia, in which she asks to borrow the portrait in order to compare it with a work by Giovanni Bellini, who was the most famous Venetian painter at that time.
Scientific examination of the painting has revealed the remains of spolvere in the outlines of the figure and the head, which confirm the use of a cartoon - a full-scale drawing, the design of which was transferred to the panel by a process of pricked outlines pounced with charcoal dust. Furthermore, traces of direct under-drawing were found on the panel in areas of the hands, right arm, bridge of the nose and the hairline, suggesting that Leonardo made adjustments to elements of the composition after the drawn design had been transferred.
Fingerprints, commonly found in Leonardo’s paintings from this period have also been identified on Cecilia’s face and on the head of the ermine. The background appears to have been repainted and may originally have been painted grey-blue by Leonardo.