Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of a Lady

Magazine article The Spectator

Portrait of a Lady

Article excerpt

You do not need to be versed in Italian Renaissance studies to fall in love with Leonardo da Vinci's `Lady with an Ermine'. Isabella Czartoryska, its second Polish owner, prized it even while failing to recognise the identity of the animal. `If it's a dog it's an ugly one. . .' she wrote in her manuscript catalogue, when the painting was first shown in her Gothic House gallery on the family estate at Pulawy. Nor is specialised art expertise a necessity. The painting's magic is so potent that a postcard reproduction could almost do the trick.

Almost but not quite. Seeing the actual painting, for the first time, about 25 years ago in southern Poland, where it lives, initiated my own enchantment. It hung by itself on a screen in the middle of a room in Cracow. It had been singled out for special treatment, but the curatorial context was necessarily temporary and primitive in those impoverished communist days. In retrospect I count it a luxury to have seen it with so few other people in the room.

Today, on the eve of Cracow's designated emergence as European City of Culture for the year 2000, which is probably also the bicentenary year of the removal of `Lady with an Ermine' from Italy to Poland, its splendid circumstances furnish a dramatic contrast. It graces a room, shared only with a portrait by Raphael, in the superbly refurbished Czartoryski Museum. In the museum bookshop now, two excellent scholarly booklets are available, both translated into English: namely, Lady with an Ermine in the Czartoryski Gallery by Maria Rzepinska, 1978; and Female Portraits by Leonardo da Vinci by Janusz Walek, 1994. It was not until 1900 that the Polish scholar J. BolozAntoniewicz realised that the painting was Leonardo's lost portrait of Cecilia Gallerani. It had been sold to Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, eldest son of Isabella, on his journey to Italy in 1799-1800, as Leonardo's `La Belle Ferroniere'. A hundred years after his purchase very few scholars considered Leonardo to be the author of the Cracow painting.

On my first visit, if there was anything other than minimal and perfunctory literature on the subject on the premises, in any language, it was not to hand. Did it really matter? In any case, I had no choice but to let such anticipated discoveries wait. I could only guess at the tone and content of the usual international academic battles on paper, scholar against connoisseur, perhaps, or archivist versus curator, the conservator's X-rays and scannings by various types of light, the input on dating from historians of dress and fashion, the hidden symbolic meanings and the stories of what the Nazis did. (Anyone who has watched the television farce Allo Allo would realise that the Nazis would have done something. In the event it was stolen from its hiding place in Sienawa and transferred to Berlin as early as September 1939.) I decided that it would be a challenge and a pleasure to see how far I could get, just by looking and pondering. I found myself rooted to the spot, as if hypnotised, for about an hour.

Was it the young lady in the picture who was casting a spell over me? How exquisitely suggested is the bordered gauze veil that keeps her glossy hair so neatly. It is held around her head by a narrow black band. She could easily be an actress, alive now, captured for a second or two in a costume drama. She was utterly delightful... but not my type. (She did not resemble my blonde Polish wife with whom I was happily in love. …

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