Home Author Book Review: Author Takes Readers on a Journey to a Famous Painting in ‘What the Ermine Saw’ | Entertainment

Book Review: Author Takes Readers on a Journey to a Famous Painting in ‘What the Ermine Saw’ | Entertainment

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By PENNY A PARRISH FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR

I did not know that the genius Leonardo da Vinci painted only four known portraits of women during his life. One, of course, is the “Mona Lisa”. This fascinating and well-researched book is the story of another: “La Dame à l’ermine”.

A beautiful young girl, probably about 14 years old, posed for da Vinci at the request of her lover, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Although engaged to Beatrice, a member of the aristocracy, he found reasons to delay the marriage while he took advantage of his young mistress. To show off his wealth and influence, he hired the most famous painter of the time, da Vinci, to paint his portrait. The seance probably took place around 1490.

The artist has captured young Cecilia Gallerani gazing intently to her left at someone or something. On her lap rests a white ermine, a symbol of pregnancy and childbirth. Da Vinci used both hands to paint the portrait.

These small details, along with photographs and drawings, are spread throughout this book. We learn that Ludovico eventually married Beatrice, who was close to his sister Elizabeth, a powerful woman in Milan who became one of the region’s most successful art collectors. What she wanted most, however, was to be painted by da Vinci. He sketched it, but never completed a portrait. So Elizabeth decided to get Cecilia’s “Lady with an Ermine.” She succeeded in “borrowing” it in 1498. When Cécile died in 1536, no trace of the painting remained.

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Its location remained unknown for more than 250 years, when it ended up in the hands of a Polish family. Later it hung on Nazi Hans Frank’s wall, as part of Hitler’s art collection. After the war, this 15-by-21-inch wooden panel returned to Poland, where it is now on display at the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. Later chapters include details of scans of the painting that reveal what da Vinci created before the final version.

The author takes us on this journey, and we end up being amazed that this painting exists. Knowing his story made him more beautiful and intriguing to me. I hope one day to see him in person.

Penny A Parrish is a freelance writer in Stafford County.

Penny A Parrish is a freelance writer in Stafford County.