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What is the greatest treasure in Kraków?

What is the greatest treasure in Kraków?

The Louvre museum is one of the most popular museums worldwide. Almost 10 million tourists visit Paris to see the famous Gioconda by Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa is undeniably a masterpiece, but did you know that in Krakow you may find a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, too!

In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci was sent as an ambassador by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Ludovico Sforza, who ruled Milan between 1499 and 1579. 

In Milan Leonardo created one of the most beautiful and amazing portraits – Lady with an Ermine 

Why is Lady with an Ermine is so special?


Unfortunately only 25 paintings made by Leonardo da Vinci survive today and only 4 of them are between 1489–1491.

The painting is not large, it is only 53,4 x 39,3 cm (21 x 15 in). It was painted with oil paint on walnut panels.  The material selected to create this portrait is special. In Italy, at the time, oil paints were relatively new and not commonly used by artists, same with the walnut panels. The painting shows the upper half of a woman turned toward her right at a three-quarter angle, but with her face turned toward her left, like she is looking at somebody out of frame. This composition was unique in Lombardy in the second half of the XV century. Most portraits were painted from the profile view. The lighting illusion focuses viewers on the face of the lady and white animal which she holds in her arms.

Who is this beautiful lady?

The lady has been identified as Cecilia Gallerani. Her father worked at the Duke’s court, where she would accompany him to the Duke's palace. Her poetry and beauty seduced Ludovico Sforza. Cecilia and the Duke of Milan became lovers. Ludovico was infatuated with her and asked Leonardo to make a portrait of them, but it was not an easy job. Leonardo knew that he must avoid a scandal. Cecilia was a member of a large family that was neither wealthy nor noble, while Ludovico was the duke. Even if this kind of affair was commonplace in noble courts, there was another reason why they could not be painted together. During their romance, Sforza was already engaged with a different woman – Beatrice d’Este. 

However, this magnificent portrait shows not only the lady. Cecilia holds a small white-coated stoat, known as an ermine. This small animal is the key to open the secret of the portrait. The ermine in Greek is called GALE which art historians connected directly with the first part of Cecilia’s surname – Gallerani. The ermine also symbolizes Ludovico Sforza who was the cavalier of the Ermine Order, his close friends would call him Ermelino Bianco – the white ermine. The ermine also symbolizes pregnancy. Having a child at the time was potentially dangerous. Many women and children died from birth complications. People believed, that ermines could help to avoid any complications. Art historians are certain that Cecilia was pregnant with Ludovico when the painting was made and she gave birth to a son – Cesario.

Lady with an Ermine is not only a painting of the beautiful girl. It is the portrait of three people in fact. 

What was happening with the portrait?

In 1491 the Duke of Milan and his promised bride Beatrice d’Este got married. Tragically Ludovico and Cecilia's romance had to come to an end. The lovers could not be together, but Ludovico financially supported his mistress and their child. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was one of the gifts to her. After her death, Lady with an Ermine was lost for centuries.

At the end of XVIII century Poland lost it's independence. A Polish noble, Princess Izabela Czartoryska-Flemming decided to create the first public museum to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of Poles. The motto she gave to the fine arts collection was The past of the future. In 1798 her son Adam George Czartoryski found the painting at the auction in Italy, and incorporated it into his mother’s collection. Probably in 1800 at the Czartoryski’s palace in Puławy the painting was restorated. The dark blue background was painted over with black paint and in the left corner added an inscription with golden letters: LA BELE FERONIERE. LEONARD DAWINCI. Czartoryski was sure he bought one of the Leonardo da Vinci portraits, but the first interpretation was wrong. The Lady with an Ermine was considered a close resemblance to another Leonardo painting, The Belle Ferronière.

In 1830 Poles organized an uprising against Russian occupant. Princess Czartoryska hid Leonardo's famous portrait in Sieniawa. The November Uprising failed and the Czartoryski family escaped to Paris, transplanting the portrait to Hotel Lambert. In 1869 Poland still was occupied, however the southern part encompassing Kraków became part of Austrian empire where Poles had slightly more autonomy in regards to their language and culture. Władysław – grandson of Izabela, moved the collection to The Old Royal Captial of Poland. During the I world war the Lady with an Ermine was moved to Dresden for safe-keeping, returning to Krakow in 1920.

World War II 

After German invasion, the portrait was hidden in Sieniawa but was uncovered and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. One of Hitler’s right hands, Hans Frank, in 1940 requested to move it back to Krakow, to his office at the Wawel Castle. At the end of Second World War the Lady with an Ermine was discovered by Allied troops in Schliersee in Bavaria, and was returned to Czartoryski Museum, where it is on exhibit now.

Present Day

Millions of tourists visit Krakow each year. Many come to see Auschwitz Memorial Camp. Such a place reminds us of what humanity is capable of doing in the name of an ideology. During WW II German Nazis killed almost 6 million of Polish citizens including approximately 3 million of Polish Jewish. In during the Nazi German occupation Poland lost about 17% of its total population. 90% of Poland’s capital city, Warsaw was destroyed. Many fine art pieces were also lost. Miraculously one of the greatest art treasures in human history survived this tragic time and had been returned to Poland.

What is the greatest treasure in Krakow?

The Lady with an Ermine is a wonderful masterpiece made by one of the greatest artists of all time. It is a real gem among fine art pieces all over the World. It has everything: symbols of true romance, beauty, amazing technique and dramatic history. It is a real symbol of Krakow

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