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Lady with an Ermine dodges rampaging Russian, Prussian and German armies to finally be displayed in London

May 10, 2011
But for many Renaissance experts the Mona Lisa is not even Leonardo da Vinci's best portrait of a woman from the waist up.

In the National Museum in Cracow, 130km from the Louvre in Paris with its permanent scrum of tourists gawping at a muddy brown painting behind a glass box, hangs Lady with an Ermine or Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, an altogether more beguiling picture that can still be appreciated as a work of art without the baggage that comes with being a global pop-cultural icon.

Painting "Lady with an Ermine, or Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani" (1488-90) by artist Leonardo Da Vinci. Source: Supplied
Leonardo painted it at the court of the Duke of Milan in about 1490, some 13 years before he painted the Mona Lisa. For most of its life this portrait of the Duke's 15-year-old mistress has been unknown to - or overlooked by - Western art historians, but it possesses a secret history even more remarkable than the ripping yarn that made the Mona Lisa so recognisable.

The Lady has been lost for 300 years. She has dodged rampaging armies of Russians, Prussians and Germans, resided in chic mansions in Paris and Mayfair, and languished in the Polish countryside in one of the world's odder private museums. She has been stolen by Nazis, appropriated by communists and mobbed whenever she has been seen abroad.

In November, the picture will be displayed in Britain for the first time in what promises to be an exceptional Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The chances are that it will never travel again. The family that own the painting have only allowed it to travel now, in the face of objections by some conservators, because they believe that it can help their picture to accomplish something astonishing: to supplant the Mona Lisa as the signature work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Count Adam Zamoyski, an art historian whose family foundation owns the painting, has no doubt that it is the better work. He says that the Lady is "unquestionably" finer than the Mona Lisa and declares with aristocratic certainty that "this will replace the Mona Lisa as the icon for Leonardo. As simple as that."

Of course he would say that, but Luke Syson, curator of the show, agrees, on aesthetic grounds at least. He calls the Lady "the crown jewel of [Leonardo's] very, very small surviving oeuvre ... one of the great milestones in the history of world art".

For Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, the National Gallery has achieved the unprecedented feat of gathering together seven of Leonardo's paintings. By most estimates that is half of the inventor, scientist, draughtsman, architect, engineer, sculptor and painter's surviving body of works painted on wood (there is also The Last Supper, painted on a wall in Milan and therefore immovable). However, the Lady will be the star attraction.

Syson sees it as "one of those moments where suddenly an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary hand achieves a leap forward". He believes that this picture represents the arrival of psychological depth in portraiture. "Before this Leonardo was still obeying certain conventions that he'd learnt. This is the moment when his ambition to show the essence of a human being, both on the outside and on the inside, suddenly comes into its own."

Leonardo painted the Lady for his patron, Ludovico Sforza, the murderous regent of Milan who had assumed ducal powers on behalf of his nephew and was about to become Duke outright. It is painted on walnut and depicts the Duke's young mistress with her hair plaited long in a Spanish style and wearing a fashionable one-sleeved blue cloak over a red dress, the rich colours perfectly setting off her pale skin and the white fur of the animal in her arms. The author Philip Pullman has said that the painting helped to inspire the daemons in his Dark Materials trilogy.

As well as echoing the shape of Cecilia's face, the ermine has additional significance because it was a symbol of purity, the emblem of the Duke, and a play on words: the Greek for members of the weasel family is very similar to the name Gallerani. The Duke appears to have given up the painting soon after he married his wife (Syson imagines the new Duchess of Milan "stomping around the palace saying 'I don't want her and I don't want it'"). By the end of the century Cecilia owned it herself, whereupon the work disappeared into obscurity for 300 years.

In a wood-panelled room in the National Gallery, Zamoyski grins and embarks on the Lady's extraordinary story. "Between 1500 and 1800 we know nothing about where it was and who it belonged to. It was bought in about 1800, probably in Venice, by somebody called Prince Adam Czartoryski [Zamoyski's ancestor]."

The Prince also acquired a beautiful self-portrait by Raphael and sent them both to his mother, who was putting together "a rather curious museum in the Polish countryside", Zamoyski says. "The theme of the museum was world civilisation explored through the imagination, so it was not the worth of the object as a work of art but what it represented that was important. She was interested in this picture primarily because it was painted by that very extraordinary man Leonardo da Vinci."

By this point the Mona Lisa was hanging in Napoleon's bedroom in Paris. The Lady, by contrast, was surrounded by objects "such as a goblet with the ashes of El Cid, some bones taken from the tomb of Abelard and Heloise, Voltaire's quill and some moss from Stonehenge. She also had a bit of Shakespeare's chair that she bought in Stratford-upon-Avon and Captain Cook's cutlass, bought off his widow," continues Zamoyski.

In 1831 the museum "had to be packed up in a hurry, when a Russian army led by her ex-son-in-law started bombarding the country house". The family took refuge with the picture in the Austrian part of Poland. They then moved into exile in Paris, at the Hotel Lambert, a beautiful 17th century mansion, which in 2007 was bought by a member of the Qatari royal family for an estimated 80 million ($107m). When Paris came under threat in the Franco-Prussian war, in 1870, the picture came to London with the Czartoryskis, who rented a house in Mayfair, before returning to Cracow.

"During the First World War it was taken for safe keeping to Dresden, where the local art historians expressed the opinion that it wasn't a Leonardo at all and was very inferior [not a view that holds any credibility now]," says Zamoyski. "It then went back to Cracow again. In 1939 it was taken to a country estate east of Cracow and walled in, in a cellar, in an outbuilding along with a whole load of other precious stuff. But when the Germans occupied the area a German miller informed on them. The cache was discovered. The soldiers took away all the gold and precious objects, but they weren't interested in paintings. One of them trod on this picture.

"Then there was a bit of a tussle over it between the Germans. First of all the army took it. Then the Gestapo took it off the army. And then a specialist sent by Hitler took it from the Gestapo." At which point the painting was intercepted by the German governor of Poland, "a very unlovely character called Dr Hans Frank", along with a Rembrandt (one of only six landscapes he painted) and the Raphael. He hung all three of them in his bedroom in Wawel castle in Cracow, "this one above a radiator" until a picture restorer gently intervened.

At the end of the war Frank fled, taking the Leonardo, the Raphael and the Rembrandt with him in a case. "When he was finally caught by the Americans and they opened the case, there were only two pictures in it: the Lady and the Rembrandt." The Raphael is "still Awol", Zamoyski says. His father spent years looking for it, a search that became "very cloak and daggerish".

"There was one man, a Swiss homosexual architect who was an absolute favourite of Hans Frank. He was imprisoned after the war. When he was let out of jail, in the 1950s, my father immediately arranged to meet him and he died in a car crash on his way to meet my father. Real Odessa Files stuff."

Amazingly, the communist government of Poland took the Czartoryski collection into care, rather than confiscating it, possibly because that would enable them to claim the Raphael if it ever materialised. During the Cold War the painting travelled to Moscow, but was hardly seen by experts on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Its first trip to the West, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in 1992, created a sensation.

There will be huge crowds here, too, although the National Gallery is limiting entry numbers to improve the experience for visitors.Nicholas Penny, the director of the Gallery, has previously attacked the idea of the "blockbuster" art exhibition if it does not also have a clear scholarly purpose. In this case it is to dispense with what Zamoyski calls "the usual freak show" surrounding Leonardo to concentrate on his supremacy as a painter.

For the Czartoryski family it is also about raising funds for a new museum that would place the Lady back among the bits of Stonehenge and El Cid, and the chance to show off one of Poland's greatest treasures. "Our country's been bombed and looted to pieces and is relatively extremely poor in art," Zamoyski says. "It is marvellous that among those shards that are left from this frightful cataclysm happens to be one of the great works of art in the world. It's an opportunity to make people realise that Poland has more to offer than just plumbers."

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