REVIEW: What the Ermine Saw by Eden Collinsworth
Five hundred and thirty years ago, a young woman sat before a Grecian-nosed artist known as Leonardo da Vinci. Her name was Cecilia Gallerani, and she was the young mistress of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan. Sforza was a brutal and clever man who was mindful that Leonardo’s genius would not only capture Cecilia’s beguiling beauty but also reflect the grandeur of his title. But when the portrait was finished, Leonardo’s brush strokes had conveyed something deeper by revealing the essence of Cecilia’s soul. Even today, The Woman with an Ermine manages to astonish.
Despite the work’s importance in its own time, no records of it have been found for the two hundred and fifty years that followed Gallerani’s death. Readers of The Hare with the Amber Eyes will marvel at Eden Collinsworth’s dexterous story of illuminates the eventual history of this unique masterpiece, as it journeyed from one owner to the next–from the portrait’s next recorded owner, a Polish noblewoman, who counted Benjamin Franklin as an admirer, to its exile in Paris during the Polish Soviet War, to its return to WWII-era Poland where—in advance of Germany’s invasion—it remained hidden behind a bricked-up wall by a housekeeper who defied Hitler’s edict that it be confiscated as one of the Reich’s treasures. Fans of Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold will treasure the story of this criss-crossing journey and the enigmatic woman at its heart.
What the Ermine Saw is a fact-based story that cheats fiction and a reminder that genius, power, and beauty always have a price.
Pay attention to the title. Yes, the book is obviously about Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci and goes into some detail about how the painting came into being. But most of the book follows it as it moves through time and history influencing and being affected by the turmoil and upheaval of human activities. Just go with the conceit that we’re being told what Cecilia and the ermine witnessed and then settle in for some fascinating information.
Human history has been raw, brutal, and uncertain for much of the time we’ve been here. That certainly was the case in 15th century Italy which was divided into city states often at war with each other. The family of the man who commissioned a portrait of his (very) young mistress took over Milan by force, brutalized much of its population, then turned on itself when a seven year old heir was (probably) murdered by his uncle. The new Duke of Milan then went on the type of improvement spree common to thugs trying to spruce up their image. For Italian Renaissance rulers this meant hauling in painters, sculptors, and architects, among others, and Ludovico Sforza snagged one of the best to paint Cecilia Gallerani who was poised, intelligent, and could discuss philosophy in Latin.
It was a rare time when all three were in the same city, at the same time. Leonardo was often on the move seeking better employment opportunities, it was just before Ludovico married a jealous young wife who didn’t care to be confronted with his pretty mistress living in the same castello, and a few years before the French then the Spanish invaded northern Italy. Eventually Cecelia was moved out – presumably taking the painting with her – Ludovico was captured by the French, and Leonardo zigzagged his way to and from various Italian cities before finally heading to France.
Little is known of the whereabouts of Cecelia and her ermine until they were bought – probably from an impoverished noble Italian family looking for quick cash to pay the outrageous taxes imposed by Napoleon to fund his army – by the son of a noble Polish family looking to boost Polish pride and national identity in the face of the three partitions of that country by her greedy neighbors. After that, the portrait was carried across Europe to Paris and back while the Czartoryski family went into and returned from exile.
It’s probably its fate during World War II that most people know. Initially hidden from grasping Nazi hands, along with a Rembrandt (found after the war) and a Raphael (still missing) it was on multiple “I want this” lists of Nazi bigwigs. After being found and whisked to Berlin, Hitler allowed his man in charge in Poland to hang it in his Kraków office in return for (genocidal) services rendered to the amount of 4 million dead. Found by American military forces in Germany – along with countless other looted treasures of Europe – it returned to Poland where it sat out the Soviet era.
It is this last period of time I found the most interesting as I knew little about the museum director maneuverings between Poland and the USSR and within the USSR before Poland emerged from communism and didn’t worry about lending Cecelia and the ermine for fear of not getting them back. After that the two have become famous globetrotters showing up in Sweden to help boost a bridge building bid, instantly selling out tickets to a once in a lifetime show of Leonardo paintings in London, yielding up some of their secrets to increasingly sophisticated techniques, and perhaps offering (yeah, it’s a long shot) Leonardo DNA that might reveal if his bones were reburied properly in Amboise.
And through it all, Cecelia’s smile has lured and charmed viewers while the painting displays Leonardo’s thoughts and artistic techniques. The book is very readable if a little reaching in places where not much is known of the painting’s location. I enjoyed the inclusion of so many women important to its history and preservation during war.
When David Bull, an internationally renowned art conservationist, was asked to name the one painting he would hang on the wall to look at every day, he answered without hesitating.
“Oh, that’s easy,” he responded, as though addressing the obvious. “It would be Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine.”
“Why so easy an answer?” was the next question. Bull’s efficient explanation consisted of three short reasons: “Because I think it’s sublimely beautiful. Because it is a masterly painting of technique. Because it has an intriguing story behind it.”
Check out this book to discover that history. B