In the velvety depths of Leonardo da Vinci’s picture, a self-possessed young woman peers out at the viewer with a face that is both radiant and incomprehensible. Her name is probably definitely Cecilia Gallerani, but she is better known as the “Lady With an Ermine,” which is a nickname given to her because of the slender white creature that sits on her lap. This little, immaculate painting from 1490 has been coveted by collectors for ages, and it has been caught up in the alterations that have occurred throughout the history of Europe. It is one of just four known portraits that Leonardo painted of women.
Gallerani was a genuine Renaissance lady who captivated the ferocious Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, with her talents as a poet, scholar, and musician in addition to her stunning appearance. The ermine is a reference to Sforza, who was given the moniker “White Ermine”; it rests mild but powerful in Gallerani’s hands, which is oddly sensual for a weasel. Leonardo added the ermine in the second of three phases of this picture.
In his fourth book, “What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait,” Eden Collinsworth traces the turbulent history of Leonardo’s painting, from Sforza’s Renaissance court to Enlightenment-era Poland to the theft of the portrait by Nazi looters during the Second World War. Collinsworth’s book is titled “What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait.” Collinsworth, a former executive at Hearst who is now the head of staff at a think tank, leaps between minute details and broad contexts, creating an effect that may be disorienting at times. The book “What the Ermine Saw” takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the continent’s history during the last five hundred years, covering everything from battles and empires to the creation of art and states.
The narrative is cut off at points when the artwork has been misplaced over the course of history. After Gallerani’s death, “Lady With an Ermine” was lost for over two centuries until it was rediscovered around the year 1800 by the Polish Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who was on a tour of Napoleonic Italy at the time. The Polish Prince gave the portrait to his mother, Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska, who had kept it in the family for generations.
The greatest takeaway from Collinsworth’s winding story is the character of Princess Izabela. She was a skilled politician and diplomat, as well as a committed Polish patriot and a heroine of the Enlightenment. Born in 1746, she was admired by Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire, both of whom she included among her lovers. During her honeymoon, she disguised herself as a male and travelled all over Europe wearing the uniform of the military unit her husband served in.
Izabela focused all of her attention and energy on perpetuating Polish culture when the Russian Empire conquered Poland at the tail end of the 18th century. She constructed a museum in Pulawy to store her most prized possessions in addition to other European antiquities such as chairs that belonged to Shakespeare and Rousseau as well as the ashes of El Cid. The museum is named after the village. Following the destruction of what little Polish autonomy remained in 1830 at the hands of Czar Nicholas I, the Czartoryski family relocated “Lady With an Ermine” to Paris for the purpose of securing it in the Hôtel Lambert, which served as a gathering place for Polish artists and intellectuals living in exile.
Because of the strong demand for the artwork among Nazi art thieves during World War II, its future was extremely uncertain during that time period. One of them was Hitler himself, who sent his “art envoy,” Hans Posse, to negotiate the purchase of “Lady With an Ermine” for the Führermuseum that was being constructed in Austria. The Gestapo was finally successful in recovering the picture that had been hidden in the Czartoryski family estate in eastern Poland by a housekeeper who had concealed it in a pillowcase.
In 1945, when Frank was apprehended by American soldiers, the picture was found, and it was subsequently brought back to Krakow. Collinsworth broadens her focus to tell absorbing tales of heroic curators and art historians who painstakingly reassembled Europe’s cultural patrimony after the war. The scale of the Nazi art thefts and their subsequent restitution make for an enthralling story, and the restitution of the stolen art is what makes the story so captivating.
A well-known image captures the moment when the “Lady With an Ermine” painting was given to Polish art historian Karol Estreicher by the “Monuments Men,” who had assisted the Allies in the recovery of the painting during World War II. In that photograph, Cecilia Gallerani bears witness with her eyes, in silence, to some of Europe’s most significant creative triumphs as well as some of the continent’s greatest tragedies. Her gaze is directed boldly beyond the weapons, dust, and noise of the Krakow railway station.