The Lady with an Ermine inaugurates a sort of revolution in the field of portrait painting. Leonardo not only abandons the traditional iconography with the character's profile but also introduces the "motions of soul": emotions and thoughts, which are reflected by gestures and attitudes, like the artist was theorising in the notes that would come together in his Treatise on painting.
In 1489-90, with The Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo put in practice his art theories painting a portrait from life. The Lady is therefore the first modern portrait in the history of art.
Notes such as: "osservare il decoro, cioè che li movimenti siano annunziatori del moto de l'animo del motore'' ("gestures should convey the motions of soul", which refers to the close relationship existing between her feelings and the movements of her body); "Non usare mai fare la testa volta dov'è il petto..." (never paint the head turning in the same way as the body…); "In che termine si de' ritrarre un volto a dargli grazia d'ombre e lumi'' (how to portray a face with the right light and shade) are perfectly confirmed by The Lady with an Ermine.
The painting, in fact, portrays - just like a snapshot - a moment in the girl's life, her thoughts, gestures and breath. Bellincioni was right when he wrote in his sonnet dedicated to the portrait by Leonardo (1493): "la fa' che par che ascolti, e non favella'' (she seems to be listening but doesn't speak).
In those years Leonardo was investigating the vastness of nature and of the universe and the field of anatomy, using also drawings. His studies influenced the paintings of that period, such as Vergine delle Rocce (Paris, Louvre). It's no accident that his drawing for the head of an angel on the left of the painting (Turin, Biblioteca Reale) has been compared to the portrait Lady with an Ermine.
Anyway, the Lady is looking elsewhere from the public, apparently at someone who belongs to her world and not to ours. She turns her eyes away, that's why the painting conveys a sort of tension and mysterious suspense emphasised by the enigmatic presence of the ermine.
While we are sure we know so much about the lady that we can even guess who she is turning her eyes to, the ermine seems to imply a series of references and meanings that are not enough to solve the enigma of this little animal.
The Greek name for ermine, γαλή, recalls the name Gallerani but the animal could also be a hint to Ludovico il Moro himself. Ludovico, in fact, who was called "Italico Morel" (white ermine), had become a member of the Order of the Ermine in 1488, when the King of Naples had conferred the title upon him.
Finally, in the Treatise by Leonardo concerning the qualities of animals, which was inspired by several books including Fior di Virtù, the ermine is a symbol of moderation, a chief virtue "che si è: voler aver modo in tute le sue cose schivando sempre lo tropo el poco honestamente" (excerpt). Moderation also means "courtesy" and "kindness" and the ermine is described as "uno animale più moderato e cortese e zentile che sia al mondo" (the most polite and reasonable of all animals).
Highlights of the exhibition
Who was Cecilia Gallerani
Preservations and scientific examinations
Dress and coiffure
The story of the painting in the Czartoryski collection
The Lady with an Ermine and portraits in the period between the XV century and XVI century in Milan
Leonardo Da Vinci: biography