The Woman with an Ermine: A Secret Love Story
by Ayfer Selamoğlu
“Dear Cecilia, I have thought a lot about our last meeting and your words about your relationship with the knight Ludovico. It doesn’t seem right to me that no evidence of such a love of beauty remains, despite the hurdles of marriage to the Duchess Beatrice d’Este. But since a hidden secret can be hidden in a painting, I will lend my hands and my art to a portrait of you, and leave what your heart has in your hands forever … “
The Mona Lisa is not the only mysterious work Leonardo da Vinci brought to human history. The genius has another work that is at least as interesting as his, and whose story is curious. Although it is overshadowed by the Mona Lisa, the number of those who find the Woman with Ermine mysterious cannot be underestimated.
So who is behind this smart, sharp-eyed beautiful face?
Who was that woman?
Once upon a time, when the calendars showed the first months of 1473, a beautiful girl was born in Milan. Her name was Cecilia Gallerani. His father, Fazio, was an immigrant from the Siena aristocracy. His grandfather, Sigerio Gallerani, was a dissident who had troubles because of his support of the opposing party and was eventually forced to leave his homeland. Naturally, unlike Siena, he was not among the nobility of Milan. Cecilia’s mother, Margherita Busti’s father, was a doctor of law. Cecilia lived with her parents and seven siblings, one of them a girl, in the congregation of the Basilica of San Simpliciano. His father had become a powerful member of the Italian Court. He served as the Milan Ambassador, first in Florence and then in Lucca. He was close enough to Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, to exempt him from all taxes.
Cecilia was only eight years old when her father died on December 5, 1480. Two years later she was betrothing his mother, Cecilia, to Govanni Stefano Visconti. At that time, early marriage was a normal custom to escape monastic life. According to the promise, Cecilia was supposed to marry Visconti when she was 12 years old. But this marriage never took place. The reason, of course, was Moro. And the engagement was dissolved in 1487.
Ludovico Sforza, born in 1452, was the son of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. He was more commonly referred to as “Moro” because of his dark skin, black eyes, and black hair. With a fondness for literature and a passion for hunting and military service, Moro became Duke of Milan in 1480, when Cecilia’s father died. The Duke of Milan, who had known the beautiful Cecilia through her father, was head over heels in love with her. Cecilia was not only beautiful, but she was also an educated girl too. Under the guidance of his mother, he was interested in art, especially literature and poetry.
It is not known exactly when the first meeting between Cecilia and Moro took place. But events take place in 1489 that document the Duke’s close relationship with the Gallerani family. For example, in June of that year, Muro acts as a mediator between the two families when Cecilia’s brother murders a member of the Taverna family. And he prefers Cecilia’s sister. In the petition filed for another lawsuit in the same year, it is stated that Cecilia, who is only 16 years old, does not stay in her father’s house anymore and lives independently in a house whose address is not specified. This house, whose address is probably not specified, was the love nest of Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Cecilia…
Cecilia followed the Duke everywhere, doing everything he said, working for his sake. But there was a problem. The Duke of Milan was engaged to Beatrice d’Este Ferrara, daughter of the Duke of Ferrara. She was also of age for the wedding, and her father was pressing for the wedding date. The Duke of Milan must have delayed his wedding three times for Cecilia. In the end, Moro was persuaded to do the wedding, taking into account the political power balances of the period. He was getting the heart of his noble future wife, whom he upset because of his hesitant behaviour, with the jewels he had specially prepared. And the wedding was taking place on January 15, 1490.
The Duke of Milan had made a marriage by considering the political balances. But she spent most of her time with her pregnant lover, Cecilia Gallerani, whom he said was “beautiful as a flower.” So much so that the rumours that the duke of Milan would divorce his wife were reaching the ears of Beatrice’s father, the Duke of Ferraro. Father-in-law was having new nervous breakdowns because of this. As Cecilia’s pregnancy progressed, Beatrice stepped in, putting pressure on her husband to end the relationship. Once again, Moro prefers his powerful wife and promises her to end his illegitimate relationship. He also keeps his word. Sometime after his son Cesare was born on May 3, 1491, he takes Cecilia out of the house where they live together and sends her to another house he has arranged for her in another city.
Sforza, who married Beatrice instead of Cecilia, asked the famous artist of the time, Leonardo da Vinci, who also worked for him, to paint a portrait of Cecilia. Known for the cyphers he attached to his paintings, Leonardo did not neglect to place secret codes on the ‘Woman with an Ermine’ portrait, just like in the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper paintings. Could the master have sent the message that the woman in the portrait was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, one of the most important politicians of the Italian Renaissance, with the details he cleverly added to the painting?
In the portrait, the great master emphasizes that the woman came from an aristocratic family and lived in wealth, with eyebrows shaved according to the fashion of the period, hairstyle, dresses and jewellery made of high-quality fabric. He draws the young woman’s hair in what was called “Coazone” in the period. She ends her hair, which is parted to the sides and joined on the chin, with a long braid at the back. She secures a thin muslin wrap around her head with gold and black bands running across her forehead. The woman’s tense lips, contradictory smile and gaze show her unhappiness. In her lap, she carries a white ermine-ermine, symbolizing both purity and nobility, as well as the Duke’s family symbol. During this period, the nobles kept ermines as pets. Vinci must have used this animal both as a symbol of nobility and in reference to Cecilia’s purity. Probably to honour the Duke, the position of the ermine, which she drew larger than normal, is in harmony with the position of the woman. The ermine sends a message of affection towards the woman who caresses her, but threatening the second person who is supposed to be in the direction they are looking at with her raised paw. Could the two dots on Ermine’s neck, which the woman held like a baby, be a sign of pregnancy? Or did he draw her hands exaggeratedly to make room for his secret code? What do the letters attached to the brown spot on the hand mean? These are still unsolved signs…
One of the most important features of the painting is the “Serpentine” stance of the woman. In this position, the model does not return directly to the viewer or the painter. Instead, it was as if someone had called out, and he had looked in the direction from which the voice had come, and that moment was pictured. In the portrait, Cecilia looks to the left as if she saw something. Could it be the Duke, the noble and powerful great love he saw, who abandoned himself and lived with his wife Beatrice?
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Location: Krakow, Poland – Czartoryski Museum