Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Leonardo's Polish Connection

Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci
Czartoryski Museum, Krakow
(or, Dama z gronostajem)

This is another ‘picture’ blog, because as well as getting to the London Art Fair last month, I was also able to see the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition before it closed last week. Within the exhibition’s story of two self-made men - the illegitimate Tuscan boy who became a celebrity genius in his own day, and the unscrupulous usurper who became Duke of Milan – there was an unexpected Polish twist. Many reviewers declared Leonardo’s painting of the duke’s mistress Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with the Ermine, 1489-90) to be the exhibition’s highlight, and this was the image used in all the National Gallery’s advertising materials. The portrait had been lent by the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow, with the permission of Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski. At the Forum on Early Modern Central Europe, a seminar I co-convene in London, we recently heard a great paper by Agnieszka Whelan on the patronage and collecting of the 18C Polish noblewoman Izabela Czartoryska. It was her son, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who purchased Leonardo’s Lady with the Ermine in Italy at the end of the eighteenth century. It was exhibited in the family’s Polish and Parisian houses during the Partitions of Poland, and Cecilia Gallerani later travelled to Kraków when the city offered premises to house the Czartoryski collection. She was still there in 1939, when the canvass was man-handled by German occupiers, and thereafter she was appropriated by the post-war Communist government as state property.

Looking at The Lady with the Ermine – at the slightly creepy rodent, and Cecilia’s trademark enigmatic stare into the middle distance – we can on the one hand see a story of the Duke of Milan, his teenage mistress, court painter and the reinvention of the portrait genre. But this painting also tells a more modern story, of 19C Polish émigrés drumming up support for Polish independence by demonstrating the impeccable taste of Polish aristocracy, of nationalism, Fascism and Communism. So standing in front of The Lady with the Ermine, I thought of Leonardo, but I also thought of Izabela Czartoryska and the ways in which this Renaissance masterpiece reflects Polish – as much as Florentine or Milanese – history. In that sense, it is a pleasingly European painting.

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