When the Italian court poet Bellincioni first laid eyes on the Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine he declared;
“…the more living and beautiful Cecilia shall appear in the eyes of generations to come, the greater will be thy glory! For long as the world endures, all who see her face will recognize in Leonardo’s work the close union of Art and Nature.”(1)
Bellincioni’s praise stands true today, but who is the woman who went on to become Mona Lisa’s greatest rival? Although some debate continues about the sitter’s identity, most art historians have identified the woman as Cecilia Gallerani, the beloved mistress of the duke of Milan and Leonardo’s greatest patron, Ludovico Sforza(shown here). Cecilia was only a teenager when she sat for this painting, but had already secured her status as a student of classical studies, a poet, musician, singer and renowned beauty.
As the dress of the painting indicates, Cecilia Gallerani was not of nobility, but her father held several prominent positions at court. Ludovico had Cecilia installed in a suite of rooms in the Castello of Milan and court gossip indicated that he intended to make her his wife. Unfortunately, legitimizing their affair would have severed any strategic alliances for Milan and the smitten duke was not willing to let his heart rule matters of state. Instead, he married the equally alluring Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Ferrara in January of 1491 (shown below)(2).
Ludovico most likely expected Beatrice to be another acquiescent wife and turn a blind eye to the affair, but his new wife proved far too spirited to tolerate any competition. Beatrice was so jealous of Cecilia that she even refused a magnificent gold robe from her husband because his mistress had once worn a similar robe. Debate still exists on whether Leonardo ever painting Beatrice’s portrait but we might infer that Beatrice refused such an honor because it had already been tainted by the memory of the great Maestro painting her rival.(3)
After many jealous tirades, Ludovico ended his affair with Cecilla, but continued to provide for her and their son Cesare. He arranged a prominent marriage for her with Count Lodovico Bergamini and provided a sumptuous trousseau along with a villa near Cremona. It was here that Cecilia continued to entertain some of the most learned minds until her death in 1536.
We are left with a curious letter that reveals Cecilia’s modesty in her later years. In a letter to Beatrice’s sister, Isabella d’Este, she tells Isabella that the portrait painted by Leonardo, “was painted when I was still at so young and imperfect an age. Since then I have changed, altogether, so much so that if you saw the picture and myself together, you would never dream it could be meant for me!” (4) Cecilia’s beauty may have not held the test of time, but her portrait certainly is a testament to Leonardo’s genius.
Cartwright, Julia. Beatrice d'Este: Duchess of Milan 1475-1497, London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1910
(1) Cartwright, Kindle Location: 1129-35 or p. 53
(2) It is still not know if the portrait of Beatrice d'Este is truly her.
(3)Cartwright, p. 91
(4)Cartwright, p. 54