The Mona Lisa has become one of the most famous paintings in the world but I’m going to make the case that Leonardo’s other other three female portraits (two mistresses and a noblewoman in a very Renaissance romance) are just as captivating.
Leonardo da Vinci painted only four portraits of woman (none of which remain in Italy). Each offers a window into the psychological state of the the sitter making these paintings character studies as much as masterpieces of colour, form and light.
Lady with an Ermine (1489)
She’s beautiful. She’s intelligent. She’s provocative. And she’s controlling an exquisite yet gnarly little ermine that seems ready to gouge out your eyes if you so much as frown at his mistress. This painting was simply revolutionary and is considered by some the first modern portrait in terms of its emotional depth. No longer should an artist just paint the sitter’s features, he was to paint her character as well.
Step aside Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine is my number one in terms of both the details and emotions she shows as well as her life story.
Who is she?
Cecilia Gallerani, fifteen year old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The duke employed Leonardo as a kind of artist on hand to paint portraits, design sets for plays, work on statues to glorify the Sforza family and design ingenious war machines (talk about a resumé).
The duke was so in love with Cecilia (who quickly gave birth to a son) that he delayed his agreed-upon marriage to Beatrice d’Este for over a year. It was no secret that he was besotted with Cecilia and no doubt Leonardo sought to capture what it was about her that was so captivating: her beauty and her mind.
Eventually Ludovico arranged a good marriage for Cecilia, which was the only acceptable direction her life could have taken. You couldn’t be a mistress forever but if your lover didn’t arrange a good marriage for you, you were considered soiled goods. Luckily for Cecilia, she went on to become a patron of the arts and wealthy woman.
Why an ermine?
Buckle up for this symbolism. First, Ludovico had been awarded the “Order of the Ermine” and was sometimes referred to as “the white ermine.” Cecilia holding the sinuous animal in her hands is a somewhat provocative gesture to suggest she holds the duke in the palm of her hand as well.
Next up: the word for ermine in Greek is “galée” which was meant to remind you of Cecilia’s last name “Gallerani.”
Lastly, the white of the ermine also symbolises Cecilia’s purity (yes, she was a mistress it seems to say, but let’s not hold that against her).
More mysterious than the Mona Lisa
Everybody talks about the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile but what about Cecilia’s? Who is she looking at that has just come into the room and how does she feel about it? She could be pleased… resigned… Critical…. Questioning… every time you look she has a different expression. If Ludovico is the ermine, is she looking toward a future? Is she jealously guarding him and his love for her? Or perhaps Ludovico is the one entering the room and she she’s turning to greet him. Cecilia was also known to preside over “salon style” intellectual and philosophical gatherings. Perhaps she is looking up to receive new guests and therefore new ideas.
Where is she located?
In the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. It was brought to Poland in 1798 and was sold to the Polish Government in 2016 for €100 million.
La Belle Ferronnière (1496)
Her stare reveals a character so bold and cunning that she’s unnerving yet intriguing. We want to know what makes her so strong and proud and what she knows that we don’t.
Who is She?
Lucrezia Crivelli. She essentially took Cecilia Gallerani’s place as the mistress of Ludovico Sforza. But it doesn’t stop there. She was also the lady in waiting to his wife, Beatrice d’Este! Talk about being stuck in the middle. The portrait was probably commissioned after she gave birth to a son.
What’s a Ferronnière?
The painting was originally thought to be the portrait of the wife of an iron monger known as a “ferronnier.” Later they decided she must be Lucrezia but the old name stuck.
Where is she now?
The Louvre, Paris.
Ginevra De’ Benci (1478)
Who is she?
Sure, she doesn’t look like a barrel of laughs but this is Leonardo’s first non-religious painting and he already depicts a very “Leonardo” landscape in the background, turned a hazy blue with the atmospheric perspective that he would become known for.
The juniper tree behind her is a reference to her name “Ginevra.” (The word in Italian is ginepro.)
Ginevra came from the incredibly wealthy Florentine Benci family (who were allied with the Medici) and married Luigi Niccolini, a less wealthy Florentine politician who eventually got into a few debts, perhaps explaining her less-than-thrilled expression.
A very “Renaissance” romance
So who paid Leonardo for this painting? The rich Benci family? Her less rich husband? Actually it was probably another man entirely: Bernardo Bembo, married man and future ambassador to Venice. Why would he pay for a painting of another man’s wife? Because he was essentially having a public, platonic romance with Ginevra. Sounds strange but this was considered totally normal in late 1400s Florence. Desperately seeking poetic, platonic, chivalrous romance, culminating in portraiture … Try adding that to your Tinder profile.
In fact Bembo’s personal motto “Virtue and Honour” have been found on the back of the painting using infrared analysis, adding to the belief that he commissioned the painting or at least helped pay for it.
Where is she now?
The National Gallery in Washington DC.
Mona Lisa (1503)
So much has been written about the little Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile that she runs the risk of being seriously overhyped. There’s no doubt this is a masterful portrait and shows how far Leonardo’s techniques had improved since his very first portrait of Ginevra above.
Leaving aside his techniques for this post, one of the most interesting things about Mona Lisa is that we don’t really know who she was.
Who was Mona Lisa?
Mona essentially means Signora (from Madonna). So Mona Lisa could be simply something like “Madam Lisa” or “Mrs. Lisa,” the wife of a silk merchant in Florence named Francesco del Giocondo. In fact in Italian she is often referred to as “La Gioconda” for this reason. The master painted her when she was nine years into her marriage at the age of 24. Leonardo’s father was Francesco del Giocondo’s notary so he either helped his son get the commission or more likely Leonardo, now famous and with a lot of work on his hands, agreed to do it out of respect for his father’s connection to the Giocondo family.
Her smile and inner thoughts might be a mystery to us but who she is seems pretty straight forward. However that never stopped a good theory…
Another idea is she is a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci as a woman… I’m not really buying that one. Leonardo was definitely gay but there’s not really evidence that he liked to dress up as a woman and then furthermore paint himself as one.
The most risqué theory is that she is actually Leonardo’s young male companion Salai dressed up in drag. Salai lived with Leonardo for many years and his face does look kind of like Mona Lisa’s (see his portrait below). But if Leonardo ever wanted to draw such a subject it seems more likely he would sketch it in his many notebooks and not go to the trouble of painting a detailed and expensive portrait.
Leonardo couldn’t let Lisa go
The other thing that makes Mona Lisa so mysterious is that Leonardo couldn’t let the painting go. Literally. He carried her around with him for 16 years, always adding new touches here and there. He was a notorious perfectionist (often to the exasperation his patrons) but it does seem odd that he would be commissioned to make a painting for someone and then carry it off (there’s no evidence he was ever paid for the Mona Lisa). Unfortunately for Italy, he carried her all the way to France and when he died there, that’s where she stayed.
Where is she now?
The Louvre, Paris.
For more in depth analysis, I can recommend Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
So now it’s your turn. Which of Leonardo’s Ladies is your favourite? Do you agree with me that Cecilia is the most exceptional or does another one inspire you more? Let me know in the comments below. When it comes to Leonardo da Vinci you can never make a wrong choice.