Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani – once a species maîtresse en titre to Ludovico Sforza of Milan – is not well documented. In fact, his whereabouts were completely unknown for more than two centuries. The “extraordinary journey” that Eden Collinsworth announces in the long title of her new book is therefore only partially told. As for the “most mysterious” element, tell that mona lisa.
In fact, the Cecilia portrait, dated c.1489-91 and commonly known as Lady with an ermine, is one of Leonardo’s more prosaic works, although beautifully executed with an almost Dutch precision. The sitter wriggles gracefully with a mighty little marten, which has been variously interpreted as a reference to Cecilia’s surname – the Greek word for ermine is (galē) – an allegory of moderation, an allusion to a heraldic order to which Ludovico has recently been inducted was, and as a symbolic representation of his membrane male (among other theories).
The image appears to have remained with its sitter for a while, but the details of its subsequent journey are unclear, although it may have been at the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague at the turn of the 17th century. Collinsworth doesn’t put too much effort into this part of Cecilia’s story. Her focus is on the period after the painting’s reappearance in 1798, when the Polish nobleman Adam Jerzy Czatoryski bought it for his mother against a turbulent geopolitical backdrop: the engulfment of Poland by the great European powers in the second half of the 18th century and the subsequent diaspora of Polish aristocrats to London, Paris and St. Petersburg; the many crises and conflicts of the 19th century and beyond; and finally the catastrophe of World War II. Through all these turbulent events, Cecilia, small and precious, often finds herself packed in a suitcase or walled up in a basement: silent witness of momentous events or hostage of an unheard-of fortune.
sex and etiquette
Collinsworth is a power figure in US journalism who has previously written about sex and etiquette, among other things. In what appears to be her first foray into art history, she declares with a peculiar pride that she is a non-specialist. Unfortunately, the historical and art historical elements of What the ermine saw are peppered with omissions, simplifications and downright howling (“condottiero” instead condottiere, for example). She’s on safer ground when she gets to the more recent part of the story, post-1939, when Cecilia, stolen by the Nazis, is taken in by the Office of Strategic Service’s specialized art-recovery team, the so-called Monuments Men (I prefer the The GI’s term.” Venus Fixers”), with a little help from a brave French curator, Rose Valland, only to become a political pawn in Cold War Poland. (Adam Jerzy’s last direct descendant, Adam Karol, eventually sold it to the Polish government in 2016.)
As far as one can gather from the advertising, the book is aimed at a generalist, Bunny with Amber Eyes-Readers and fans of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch. In any case, it reads decidedly odd, as if it had been run through AI software designed to turn standard English into popular historical non-fiction: by the rom-com-able Leonardo (“He had a perfectly straight Greek nose and deep-set soulful eyes”) to a cavalcade of “extraordinary” women, which in stories like this usually means extraordinarily rich or distinguished women, to an unnecessarily tortured syntax (“Leonardo’s illegitimate birth would not have harmed his future” ; “The garlic-spiced feasts set before Isabella became secondary to the keen craving she had for the man who sat at the head of the table”) on almost every page.
It’s an approach that might well find admirers, although it would have been more appropriate for a 16th-century Mannerist, a Parmigianino or a Beccafumi, than poor Leonardo, with his luminous mind and clear eye.
Eden Collinsworth, What the Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious PortraitDoubleday, 272 pages, 55 illustrations, £20, published 24th May
• Keith Miller is editor at The Telegraph and a regular contributor to the Literary review and the Times Literary Supplement