The remarkable true story behind one of history’s most enigmatic portraits—"a glorious picaresque of unbridled passions and unmitigated scoundrels, a glorious romp through the great palaces and palazzos of Europe" (Amanda Foreman, New York Times best-selling author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire)
Five hundred and thirty years ago, a young woman sat before a Grecian-nosed artist known as Leonardo da Vinci. Her name was Cecilia Gallerani, and she was the young mistress of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. Sforza was a brutal and clever man who was mindful that Leonardo’s genius would not only capture Cecilia’s beguiling beauty but also reflect the grandeur of his title. But when the portrait was finished, Leonardo’s brush strokes had conveyed something deeper by revealing the essence of Cecilia’s soul. Even today, The Woman with an Ermine manages to astonish.
Despite the work's importance in its own time, no records of it have been found for the two hundred and fifty years that followed Gallerani’s death. Readers of The Hare with the Amber Eyes will marvel at Eden Collinsworth’s dexterous story of illuminates the eventual history of this unique masterpiece, as it journeyed from one owner to the next–from the portrait’s next recorded owner, a Polish noblewoman, who counted Benjamin Franklin as an admirer, to its exile in Paris during the Polish Soviet War, to its return to WWII-era Poland where—in advance of Germany’s invasion—it remained hidden behind a bricked-up wall by a housekeeper who defied Hitler’s edict that it be confiscated as one of the Reich’s treasures. Fans of Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold will treasure the story of this criss-crossing journey and the enigmatic woman at its heart.
What the Ermine Saw is a fact-based story that cheats fiction and a reminder that genius, power, and beauty always have a price.
Former publishing executive Collinsworth (Behaving Badly) delivers an intriguing if occasionally dubious history of Lady with an Ermine (c. 1490), one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Tracking the painting across five centuries, Collinsworth reveals that the portrait's subject was most likely Cecelia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan (the ermine is a reference to one of the duke's honors). After Gallerani lent the painting to Sforza's sister-in-law, it fell out of the historical record for nearly two and half centuries before reemerging in the collection of Polish princess Izabela Czartoryski. Confiscated by Nazi official Hans Frank during WWII, it was recovered in Bavaria in 1945 and sent back to the Czartoryski Museum in Krak w. Collinsworth also delves into technical aspects of art restoration and conservation, explaining that a 2014 analysis revealed that the work was completed in three stages, with the ermine added late. Though Collinsworth conveys the vicissitudes of European history and the enduring fascination of da Vinci's work, some of her anecdotes including an allegation that Ludovico Sforza's wife "found a numbing self-relief in sex orgies" and died soon after participating in one strain credulity. Still, this is an entertaining and accessible study of a masterpiece. Illus.