The First Lady of the Renaissance

Above: Lady with an Ermine, a masterpiece painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1490. Below: Rembrandt’s Girl in a Picture Frame on display in one of the rooms of the Royal Palace of Madrid. The pieces are part of the Polish Golden Age exhibition opening June 3. Photos by Claudio Álvarez.

The First Lady of the Renaissance
One of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest paintings arrives in Spain under extraordinary security: “Lady with an Ermine” rarely leaves Poland
El País: La primera dama del Renacimiento
Ángeles García reporting from Madrid May 25, 2011

It will be the center of a phenomenal web of diplomatic-artistic intrigue: on Monday, May 30, at 16:00, a military plane from Poland will land in the Torrejón airport. From that moment, a team of 12 people, among them restorers and politicians, will keep watch over a priceless artistic treasure. The object worthy of such attention is La dama con l’ermellino (“Lady with an Ermine”), one of the fundamental works of Leonardo da Vinci’s meager artistic production and by extension one of the jewels of the Italian Renaissance.

It will be the star of the exhibition the Golden Age of Poland exhibition (opening June 3 in the Royal Palace of Madrid, and it will surely be one of the artistic events of the season. Such prominent pieces do not commonly travel, and this is not precisely an exception. After passing time in the capital, it will take advantage of the break from its home (the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow) to visit Berlin and the National Gallery in London. Upon returning home, it will not leave again for at least 15 years.

Before then, the lady will complete her obligations in Spain. The canvas – 54.8×40.3 cm and painted in 1490 – will be installed in a nobleman’s salon in the palace especially designed to host a piece which revolutionized the portrait for various and intangible reasons including the spiral movement ascending through the head, the anatomical study of the hands, face, and neck, the atmosphere which could be called tangible (the famous Sfumato mode), and most of all the harmony and enduring Renaissance beauty.

A team of reinforced glass specialists will create a display case to guarantee suitable conditions for the painting, a panel 40 centimeters thick designed not to hinder contemplation of the painting, costing 30,000 euros for the trip and paid for by the three countries benefiting from the visit: it is little to preserve a canvas which, having survived two world wars, Nazi plundering, and acts of aggression, is now maintained in optimal condition.

A miracle? Nicolás Martínez-Fresno, president of the Patrimonio Nacional [National Heritage], prefers to use this word to describe the painting’s arrival in Spain. Those who have taken part in seducing the venerable dame include President Zapatero, Minister of Culture Ángeles González-Sinde, and King Juan Carlos himself, who contemplated Leonardo’s works in Washington years ago and has a personal relationship with Prince Czartoryski, the sole owner of this work and the rest of the extremely valuable collection held in the Krakow museum.

“The history of this painting,” explained Martínez-Fresno, “has run almost parallel to that of Poland.” The vicissitudes to which the director refers include episodes like its discovery in 1939 in the catacombs of a Polish castle and subsequent requisition by invading Nazi forces, which sent it to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. In 1940, Hans Frank, General of the Polish Government, demanded the restitution of the treasure in the city of Krakow; ignominiously, it ended up adorning his own private villa.

The painting’s good luck before the convulsive twentieth century began in earnest in Milan. Leonardo created it on commission for Duke Ludovico El Moro. The lady is Cecilia Gallerani, the beautiful young lover of the duke, who sat for the portrait at 17 years of age, when Leonardo had a little more than 40. Successive restorations have not affected the woman’s figure, but they have affected the background, which was not originally black. There was not always a signature in the left corner, either.

And the ermine? That was the duke’s nickname. The only argument about the work is over the exact identity of the creature: is it a weasel? A ferret? A marten? Zoological digressions aside, the enigmatic mascot will settle in Madrid until September along with 190 other works testifying to the cultural richness of Polish museums, including treasures from artists like Lucas Cranach and a very beautiful oil painting, Girl in a Picture Frame, produced by a mature Rembrandt in 1641.

A Well-Traveled Lady
There was no trace of the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, who died young, until the beginning of the 19th century. It then became a part of the Czartoryski family collection which also included pieces by Rembrandt and Raphael.

After the Russian Czar’s troops arrived, the painting went into exile in the Hotel Lambert in Paris. The Franco-Prussian War propitiated its return to Poland. From 1876, it presided in the Krakow Museum until the Nazis arrived.

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