Review: “What the Ermine Saw” by Eden Collinsworth

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WHAT THE ERMINE SAW: The extraordinary journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s most mysterious portrait, by Eden Collinsworth


A self-possessed teenager gazes out from the velvety depths of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, her face luminous and inscrutable. Her name is almost certainly Cecilia Gallerani, but she is better known as the “Lady with an Ermine”, so named for the white, agile creature in her lap. One of only four known portraits of women painted by Leonardo, this perfect little canvas from 1490 has been prized by collectors for centuries – and caught up in the transformations of European history.

Gallerani was not only a beauty, but also a talented poet, scholar and composer, a true Renaissance woman who seduced the fierce Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The ermine – added by Leonardo in the second of the three stages of this painting – is an allusion to Sforza, nicknamed “White Ermine”; it remains tame but powerful in Gallerani’s hands, oddly erotic for a weasel.

Eden Collinsworth’s fourth book, “What the Hermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait,” traces the tumultuous history of Leonardo’s painting, from the Renaissance court of Sforza to Western Poland. era of Enlightenment, through the theft of the portrait by Nazi looters during the Second World War. World War. With sometimes dizzying effect, Collinsworth – a former Hearst executive and now a think tank chief of staff – oscillates between granular detail and big context. “What the Ermine Saw” traverses wars and empires, artistic creation and state building across the continent over the past 500 years.

The story is interrupted at points where the painting has been lost to history. The “Lady with an Ermine” disappeared for more than two centuries after Gallerani’s death, only to reappear around 1800, when the Polish prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski bought it during a tour of Napoleonic Italy; he gave the portrait to his mother, Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska.

Princess Izabela is the big reveal in Collinsworth’s long tale. A masterful politician and diplomat, she was also a devoted Polish nationalist and a heroine of the Enlightenment: born in 1746, she counted Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire among her admirers. She wore the uniform of her husband’s regiment on her honeymoon, traveling freely through Europe as a man.

When Poland was annexed by Russia at the end of the 18th century, Izabela devoted her energies to immortalizing Polish culture. In Pulawy, she built a museum to house her most prized treasures, alongside other European relics like chairs that once belonged to Shakespeare and Rousseau, and the ashes of El Cid. After Tsar Nicholas I crushed what was left of Poland’s autonomy in 1830, the Czartoryski family moved “La Dame à l’ermine” to Paris to keep, at the Hôtel Lambert, a hub for exiled Polish artists and intellectuals.

The fate of the painting was particularly precarious during the Second World War, because it was highly coveted by Nazi art thieves. These included Hitler himself, whose “art envoy” Hans Posse attempted to capture “Lady with an Ermine” for the future Führermuseum in Austria. Wrapped in a pillowcase by a governess at the Czartoryski family estate in eastern Poland, the painting was eventually located by the Gestapo. Hans Frank, the governor general who oversaw the genocide of Poland’s Jews, exhibited “The Lady with an Ermine” at his summer villa in Bavaria.

When Frank was arrested by American troops in 1945, the painting was recovered and returned to Krakow. The scale and subsequent restitution of Nazi art thefts make for a compelling story, and Collinsworth expands its scope to tell gripping stories of heroic curators and art historians who painstakingly pieced together cultural heritage. of Europe after the war.

A famous photograph documents the moment the Monuments Men, who helped recover “The Lady with an Ermine” for the Allies, handed it over to Polish art historian Karol Estreicher. In this image, Cecilia Gallerani gazes boldly past the guns, dust and din of the Krakow train station, her eyes a silent witness to Europe’s major cultural achievements and its darkest atrocities .


WHAT THE ERMINE SAW: The extraordinary journey of Leonardo da Vinci’s most mysterious portrait, by Eden Collinsworth | 253 pages | Doubleday | $27


Erin Maglaque is the author of “The Intimate Empire of Venice”.

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