The fascinating da Vinci portrait that's even better than the Mona Lisa

The hand of Leonardo da Vinci has produced images that have inspired and haunted us for centuries. But, when people think about da Vinci, they usually think of the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, or the Vitruvian Man.

For the past couple months I've been volunteering in the Da Vinci: The Genius exhibit and during the process of studying up on da Vinci and guiding visitors through the exhibit, I've developed a new respect for how ambitious da Vinci's work was, a tragic sense that he was born a few centuries too soon to pursue his favorite projects, and a new fascination for one his paintings.

As for the scope of da Vinci's work and the tragic element of his life, I'll have to take up those topics in another post. Today, I want to talk about the painting you've probably never heard of unless you're an art enthusiast or a Da Vinci scholar. It's called "Lady with an Ermine" (left).

I realize that getting excited about a painting can be a tough sell in today's culture where we are bombarded with images constantly and learn to tune out most of them, but bear with me on this one, because it is remarkable. 

The first time I looked at this painting I didn't necessarily think much about it. The second time I saw it I thought about how vibrant the colors were in the woman's dress. The third time I saw it, I wondered why she had that little ferret as a pet and whether that was common during the Renaissance. By the fourth time I stopped and looked at it, I started to think, "Wow, there's something really unique about this one." 

After that, I was hooked. In between talking to visitors, as I walked around the da Vinci exhibit I kept stopping and looking at "Lady with an Ermine." Finally, I had to ask myself, "Why do I keep gawking at this one?" -- especially since it's only steps away from the "Secrets of the Mona Lisa," a huge and much more prominent part of the exhibit. 

After probing a little, I realized that a big part of what drew me into this painting was its tranquility. The young lady in the painting has so much composure and confidence, and without a trace of arrogance. She just completely carries off an air of being very respectful and respected, and at peace. And, how on earth did da Vinci capture all of that with oil paints and some primitive handmade paint brushes?

At that point, there was one other thing that struck me (and I realize this one may sound a little strange at first): the lady's right hand. The way she holds her hand and fingers are so natural and realistic, partially because they are a little awkard and contorted. Something about that makes the painting feel less contrived and posed, and more like an intimate look at someone who has her guard down and is completely relaxed. Plus, with the lady's hand, there is a bit of Da Vinci showing off. He did serious studies of human anatomy (including dissections) that enabled him to capture a level of realism that was breathtaking at the time. In this case, the flexed tendon between the lady's forefinger and middle finger is an excellent example, and is perfectly accurate.

After I pinned down why I was reacting to this painting, I decided to do some background research on it. One of the museum's summer interns is an art student and she's also a fan of "Lady with an Ermine." She said this da Vinci portrait has such an interesting story to it and that's what makes it appeal to her more than other famous paintings. The more I've learned about it, the more I've come to agree that the rest of the story is just as fascinating as the painting itself. 

So what's the story? Let's start with the lady herself. Art historians generally agree that the young woman in the portrait is Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536). She came from a respectable background, even though she was not a member of the nobility. Her family was from Siena, where she was born sometime around 1473. Her father Fazio was a bureacrat who served in a variety of posts for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. At one point, Fazio was reportedly Milan's ambassador to Florence.

The young Cecilia must have been sharp and precocious because she was thoroughly educated in literature and Latin, most likely taught by her brother's tutor. She also learned how to write, and not just a little bit. She would later go on to become a very respected poetess. 

When she was 10 she was betrothed to Stefano Visconti. But, four years later in 1487 the engagement was ended for reasons that have been lost to history. By May 1489, Cecillia was sent to a monestary. Ironically, it was there that she met the leader of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (her father's boss). Either Sforza coaxed her to come join his court or she lept at the opportunity to escape from the solitary monastic life. Maybe it was both. Whatever the case, by the end of 1489 she became a lady-in-waiting at the Duke's court in Milan and began a romantic relationship with the Sforza himself. 

Gallerani quickly became a popular member of the Milan court, known for her poetry and for organizing groups of intellectuals and philosphers to discuss the favorite topics of the Renaissance. One of the luminaries she invited to her circle was Leonardo da Vinci, who was in Milan at the time serving as Sforza's court artist and engineer. Cecilia extended the invitation to Leonardo sometime during 1489 or 1490 while she sat for a portrait by the illustrious painter at the request of Sforza.

The result of that sitting was "Lady with an Ermine," one of Leonardo's few finished works and one that would change portait painting forever. 

While the portait would immortalize her, Cecilia's reign in the Milan court was short-lived. By the fall of 1490, she was pregnant with Sforza's child. While Sforza was clearly very fond of Cecilia, he wouldn't marry for love and fondness, but for power and political gain. In January of 1491, he married Beatrice d'Este, the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, solidifying a political alliance between Milan and Ferrrara.

Four months after Sfoza's marriage to d'Este, Cecilia gave birth to Sforza's illegitimate child, Cesare Sforza Visconti, on May 3, 1491. When Sforza's new wife found out about Cecilia and the child she pressured Sforza to make Gallerani leave the court. Eventually, Sforza gave his baby son (and by extension, Cecilia) the Palazzo Carmagnola, a beautiful palace that still stands today in Milan.

In 1492, Cecilia married Count Ludovico Carminati de' Brambilla and she later gave birth to four more children. Around 1515, both her husband and Cesare died. At that point she continued her intellectual pursuits and her work as a patron of the arts until her own death in 1536.

In 1498, almost a decade after da Vinci had painted Cecilia's likeness, a prominent duchess reportedly wrote to Cecilia asking her to send the portrait so that she could see it and compare it with other famous portraits. Cecilia replied that the painting no longer looked like her since she had changed her appearance in the time since the portrait was done. It is unknown whether she actually sent the portrait, but it is believed that Cecilia herself had the painting in her possession until her death.

Now, what about the animal in the portrait? It is an ermine. It's extremely prominent in the painting, but it's a bit of a curiosity to most of us today. My art student friend at the museum was the first one to point out to me that the ermine contains a lot of symbolism. She mentioned that the ermine stood for purity at the time, and that it was very unlikely the lady was actually holding the animal when she sat for the portrait. It was added afterward by Da Vinci.

The more I looked into the ermine, the more I started to get a sense of the complex workings of Leonardo's mind, since the ermine has multiple overlapping layers of meaning, although the purity metaphor is the most important. Leonardo later wrote that the ermine was a symbol of moderation because it would only eat once a day and he once stated, "moderation curbs all the vices." He also viewed the animal as a symbol of purity because it didn't like to get its fur dirty. Leonardo stated, "It would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity."  

But, there is also some additional subtlety to Leonardo's placement of the ermine in the painting. The greek word for ermine is "galay," which is a clever play on words with Cecilia's surname, Gallerani. Meanwhile, the ermine also pointed directly toward Ludovico Sforza, who had been named a member of the Order of the Ermine in 1488, was nicknamed the "Italian Moor, white ermine," and the ermine was one of the emblems on his coat of arms.

So, Da Vinci was doing something pretty bold here. He was holding up Cecilia as an ideal young lady of virtue, purity, and moderation while also recognizing her extramartial relationship with Sforza, Leonardo's patron. This made me wonder if Leonardo was really as smitten with Cecilia's character as the stunning portrait makes it appear, or if he was overdoing it a little bit in order to impress Sforza.

The answer, I think, lies in two other portraits that da Vinci painted for Sforza. The first is Beatrice d'Este, Sforza's wife, and the second is Lucrezia Crivelli, a later mistress of Sforza. Both are fine portraits, but neither is even close to being as magnificent as the portrait of Cecilia and there doesn't appear to be any overindulgence in either one. Da Vinci appears to have painted them just as they were. That makes it appear as if both Sforza and da Vinci were deeply impressed with Gallerani, and Leonardo did his best to capture her character in the very ambitious portrait he painted of her in "La Dama con l'Ermellino," as it is officially titled in Italian. 

The portrait itself broke many of the rules of portrait painting at the time. Before the Renaissance, portraits were typically what we'd call caracatures today and the person was often painted in the model of a biblical or mythical figure. da Vinci departed from tradition by going for a level of realism that went far beyond the work of the artists before him. The Renaissance master attempted to capture the person's true physical appearance as well as their character, psycological demeanor, or soul -- however you prefer to think about it.  

There's another surviving da Vinci portrait that achieves the same level of physical realism and psychological power. Naturally, I'm talking about the Mona Lisa (right), which has become the most famous painting in the world today and the most famous portrait of all time. Leonardo started the Mona Lisa about a decade after Lady with an Ermine but used many of the same techniques and styles. Unlike the Lady, which was actually finished fairly quickly, da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for more than a decade, carrying it with him wherever he traveled. It was not totally complete by the time Leonardo died in 1519.

Both the Mona Lisa and Lady with an Ermine have an air of psychological mystery about them. With the Mona Lisa, it's those eyes and that knowing smile. With the Lady, it's the fact that she's looking off-stage, so to speak. What's she looking at, and why? The fact that she's looking away is another symbol of modesty and humility. But, there's also a curve to the left side of her mouth that suggests wit, intelligence, and humor.

While the portrait of the Lady with an Ermine is enhanced by the ermine, the Mona Lisa is enhanced by an amazing background with a beautiful portico, running river, and jagged mountains. Da Vinci loved these types of backgrounds. It was one of his trademarks, and he perfected it in the Mona Lisa.

Lady with an Ermine and Mona Lisa have another thing in common -- both of the women may have been pregnant. Lots of art historians have come to believe that Lisa Gherardini, the woman in the Mona Lisa, was mostly likely pregnant in the portrait. Her hands appear to be be swollen and puffy and she has removed her rings. Her face is also a little puffy and she is gracefully concealing her midsection. As for Cecilia Gallerani, historically we know that she became pregnant in the middle of 1490, so if Leonardo did the painting at that point then she would have been pregnant at the time. However, she looks very svelte, so if she was pregant then she was likely at a very early stage. 

The one thing that drives the pregnancy argument in both cases is an intangible factor: both ladies seem to "glow." If you've ever been around a pregnant woman for an extended period of time then you know that they often tend to glow with a sense of self-confidence and purposefulness. Both ladies have plenty of that in their portraits. Of course, that may also just be their personalities, but the pregnancy argument is an interesting mystery to add to two very mysterious paintings.

Because of its peacefulness, its multi-layed symbolism, and Gallerani's fascinating back story, I actually prefer the Lady with an Ermine to the Mona Lisa, although both are fabulous. Consider this: the Mona Lisa resides in France at The Louvre, the world's most famous art museum, while Lady with an Ermine is in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland, where it is the museum's centerpiece but certainly doesn't get the foot traffic of Paris. The Mona Lisa rose to international fame in 1911 when it was stolen by an Italian national who attempted to return it to Italy. The painting was returned to The Louvre in 1913, and its fame was sealed after the international incident. I can't help but wonder if the two paintings were reversed and the Mona Lisa was in Poland and Lady with an Ermine was in The Louvre and it was the da Vinci painting that had been stolen, would it be the most famous painting in the world today? 

Of course, the greatest argument for the Mona Lisa is that it was Leonardo's favorite painting. But, he also had to give away Lady with an Ermine to Gallerani (as a gift from Sforza), while he had the Mona Lisa in his possession for almost 20 years.

For those of you who are already big fans of the Mona Lisa, the Lady with a Ermine is another da Vinci masterpiece to admire. It is Leonardo's only other painting that's on the same level with the Mona Lisa.

You can view a high-resolution, full-size replica of the Lady with an Ermine in the Da Vinci: The Genius traveling exhibition, which is touring the world. It's currently in my city, Louisville, Kentucky, at the Frazier History Museum until September 18. You can check the exhibit's official site for updates on future locations.

Even better, if you're lucky enough to be in Europe sometime over the next year then you can see the real thing. The Czartoryski family of Poland who owns Lady with an Ermine has agreed to allow the painting to tour again. During 2011-2012 the portrait will travel to Madrid, Berlin, and London. It is currently in Madrid until September 4. From there, it will go to Berlin for a couple months. Its final stop will be the National Gallery in London, where it will be on display from November 9, 2011 until February 5, 2012.

Polish curators show the special traveling arrangements for  Lady with an Ermine . | Photo: AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

Polish curators show the special traveling arrangements for Lady with an Ermine. | Photo: AP Photo/Alik Keplicz