[ISSN 1974-028X]








filosofia & religione


storia & sport


turismo storico

























N. 83 - Novembre 2014 (CXIV)

Cecilia o la Dama con l’ermellino

Clothing and Iconography: New discoveries - PART iII
by Elisabetta Gnignera


In my opinion, unfortunately Bernardo Bellincioni who composed at least three sonnets dedicated to the birth of Cesare Sforza Visconti in addition to the famous sonnet devoted to Cecilia Gallerani’s portrait, does not help us to unravel the enigma. In this I differ from the opinion expressed by Maria Rzepinska in her essay “The Lady with the Ermine revisited” (Rzepinska, 1993, p. 196).


According to the preface to Bernardo Bellincioni's Rime, collated and printed in 1493 by the “priest Francesco Tanci” at the request of the Duke Ludovico, the sequential order of the poems in the publication was decided by Francesco Tanci after the death of Bellincioni. The collection was prepared after the death of Bellincioni, collated and printed in 1493 at the request of Ludovido Il Moro who expressed his wish to Tanci by a certain Gualtiero, presumably "Corbetta Gualtiero Milanese”, a Hellenist and orator (according to a communication from Cesare Cantu to Pietro Fanfani in Bellincioni, 1876, I, p. 6 note 1) after the death of Bellincioni and printed in 1493 in Milan (by Filipo di Mantegazi) entitled Bellincioni Bernardo, Sonetti, canzoni, capitoli, sestine ed altre rime. (transl: (Bellincioni Bernardo, Sonnets, songs, chapters, sextuplets and other rhymes). The text in question "in 4 °, with a figure carved in wood ", is described and recorded as extremely rare in: Indice delle edizioni citate come testi di lingua dagli Accademici della Crusca nelle cinque compilazioni del loro vocabolario, per cura dell’Abate Luigi Razzolini (Razzolini, 1863, p.29 s.v. Bellincioni Bernardo).


The following quotation is taken from the Prefaceof Francesco Tanci included in the edition of the collection by Pietro Fanfani for Romagnoli in 1876: «Since the aforementioned Bellincioni died without putting his sonnets into any order, he [ ? Ludovico] asked me to collect them [the sonnets] as a matter of urgency so that the efforts of such a great man should not be wasted and also for the common good, but I undertook this task specially to please Your Excellency. In fact, this undertaking was worthy of a more talented than me: and yet it seems that I could not refuse a request coming from your [dear] and my dear Gualtiero. I could not turn down an undertaking or better, this attempt of mine, knowing that the request came from your illustrious Lordship and it will give you great pleasure, especially since I have been frequently conversing with our poet Bellincioni, for many years and I am more familiar with his thoughts.


Although this assignment was very difficult and demanding for me because, as I said, I found these sonnets all confused, with no order and titles, that is without subjects and scattered in as many sheets as the number of sonnets. Nevertheless, I have collected them (the rhymes/sonnets) in this volume in the best order I could and you will find a great many witty, funny and entertaining sonnets on many and various topics of all kinds; you will also find Chapters, Songs, Sestine, Funeral elegies, eclogues, Canzonette, Frottole, Comedie namely the representations played in front of your illustrious Lordship» (Bellincioni, 1876, I, pp. 6-8).


According to Tanci's sequential numbering of the sonnets, the sonnet for the birth of Cesare, precedes both the composition containing the symbolic allusion to Il Moro as the "Italico ermellino" and the composition on the description of the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani... On this basis we would be tempted to date the portrait tout court after the birth of Cesare Sforza Visconti (whom the poet celebrated in at least three poems which we include in the epilogue of this essay)... But unfortunately the sequential numbering of the sonnets cannot be considered probative because the same numbering was drawn, by his own admission, precisely by Tanci himself, who however states, in the abovementioned Preface, that he is aware of Bellincioni's intentions since he had been in close “contact with the poet for a long time and "uninterruptedly"...




Considering the elements of costume present in the final version of the painting – datable more plausibly, around 1490/1491 when the "Spanish-like" styles introduced in 1489 by Isabella of Aragon had been adopted and indeed, with the arrival of Beatrice d'Este in Milan (1491) had become a prerogative of the Sforza court – together with Pascal Cotte’s findings relating to preexisting vestimentary details and to the remakes detected in the painting (Cotte, 2014, pp.171-182, 201-217), one of the most important data, resulting from the multispectral analysis developed by Cotte, may be the discovery that in the original iconography of the Lady with an ermine a specimen from the Mustelidae family, perhaps a weasel (?) was initially absent and then subsequently introduced, then again replaced by an ermine, and/or a symbolic animal if one considers the peculiar assembly of its anatomical parts and proportions: moreover, it is quite habitual, especially in works of Art related to marriage and birth, such as wedding chests and birth salvers, the use of allegorical animals with propitiatory and talismanic function.



Figure 7


MASACCIO (? ANDREA DI GIUSTO), Putto with allegorical animal. Verso of birth salver, 1426 ca. Tempera on wood. Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie. The animal – perhaps associated with the birth, since on the recto of the birth salver is precisely represented a scene of nativity – is scarcely decipherable: some scholars assimilate it to a dog, others to a specimen of the family of mustelids (ferrets, weasels and stoats ), traditionally associated with the birth.


Such evidence, would lead, in my opinion, to significant points of contact with the Greek myth The Birth of Hercules as widely debated by Krystina Moczulska in relation to this Painting (Moczulska, 2009: see my endnote), and by Jacqueline Marie Musacchio (Musacchio,2001, pp.180-181): this latter, in the wake of Moczulska, especially focused on the recurring representation of mustelids, in Italian Renaissance’s paintings.


In the case of The Lady with an Ermine, however, very interesting, it seems the almost 'cryptic' use of myth. Possibly Leonardo chose to adopt this escamotage for those who knew from the inside, the events that were unfolding at that time, at the Sforza court... A sort of “ watermark reference” to this mythological hero is echoed in the sonnets of the poet Bellincioni, as well as the 'political emblem of white ermine, used both by Bellincioni in one of his sonnets and by Leonardo as an allusion to the person of Ludovico Sforza, in the so-called political allegory of the “Ermine with mud. Galeazzo between calm weather and flight of fortune included in the folio 98 recto of the manuscript H datable to the years 1493-1494. These coincidences plausibly lead me to date the remaking and completion of the portrait to the months between the birth of Cesare Sforza Visconti Sforza (3 May 1491) and the birth of Ercole Massimiliano Sforza (25 January 1493).


Between the two temporal references proposed, we find, however, the terminus ad quem constituted by the death of the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni which occurred on 12 September 1492. By this date, all the poems collected and published posthumously in 1493 by the "priest" Francesco Tanci for Duke Ludovico Sforza were obviously completed. They include the famous sonnet On Leonardo’s Portrait of Madonna Cecilia where the poet does not mention either a weasel or an ermine. If we exclude the hypothesis that Bellincioni deliberately failed to describe the ermine as hypothesized a few years ago by Carlo Pedretti noting that: «To say that it (the portrait) is the same as the one celebrated by Bellincioni and mentioned in the letters exchanged between (Cecilia) Gallerani and Isabella d'Este in 1498, it must be acknowledged that the presence of the ermine in both cases was ignored because of its obvious meaning or to avoid an explanation (Pedretti, 1990, p163); then it might be supposed that Bellincioni at first saw the portrait before the subsequent remakes by Leonardo and when the ermine did not actually appear. As for the presumed starting-date of the painting, the artist's changes of mind — visible in the L.A.M. images produced by Pascal Cotte, (Cotte, 2014,pp. 147-154, 200- 216), would lead to a further hypothesis:


- Leonardo might have begun the Work before or during the very first months of Cecilia's pregnancy with Cesare Sforza Visconti when her figure was not yet altered and, following Pascal Cotte’s findings, Cecilia would have assumed a posture slightly different from the one we know and more consistent with the rules of formal "composure" of the time [Figure 1, Part I] that is: with the arms and hands resting one upon the other but with no ermine (Cotte, 2014, pp.201-207). The original version of the portrait might have been amended subsequently by the introduction of what we presume to be a ferret or weasel, maybe alluding, once born, to the new Hercules: Cesare Sforza Visconti. Then the portrait might have been modified again by transforming the weasel into an ermine, or symbolic creature after the legitimate son of Ludovico il Moro: Ercole Massimiliano Sforza, "the new Hercules" in name and in fact... was born.


The abovementioned hypothesis complies with the fact that Bernardo Bellincioni, had seen and described the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani in the famous sonnet composed by September 1492, but did not mention either a weasel or an ermine - animals hard to ignore from a symbolic point of view... In fact, Bellincioni may have seen and described the portrait before Leonardo's final revision. Apart from the later restorations, the final version of the painting may have been completed at the time of the birth of Ercole Massimiliamo or afterwards.In this case, on the basis of what I have outlined above, the time-frame for dating respectively the beginning and the completion of the painting, could be the following:


- from the second half of the year 1489 onwards, that is:

before Cesare Visconti Sforza’s conception and/or during the first few months of Cecilia’s pregnancy (by October 1490), after Isabella of Aragon joined the Sforza court (January 1489) when the Aragonese Duchess favoured the adoption of vestimentary styles called "alla Castigliana" (Castillian or Catalan Styles) even by Cecilia Gallerani. These vestimentary styles were already present in the version of the painting, prior to the final one we know when - according to the multispectral analysis made by Cotte — a specimen of the Mustelidae family was introduced but it was smaller than the final one (Cotte, 2014 pp.208-214);

- until the early months of 1493, after the birth of Ercole Massimiliano Sforza when the painting was probably finalized, it being improper to refer to Cesare Sforza Visconti as the "new Hercules" because of the birth of Ercole Massimiliano: the eldest legitimate son of Ludovico and the new Hercules.


Author's note


After sending this contribution to Pascal Cotte (on 6 January 2013), by noting Our remarkable tangencies of thought, he kindly sent me the following article appeared in 2009 to which I had not previously had access: Krystina MOCZULSKA, Leonardo da Vinci: "The Lady with an Ermine" - interpretation of the Portrait. The author, referring to Ovid's Metamorphoses (in the abovementioned article), expresses some hypotheses of interpretation which fully coincide with some of those contained in the present essay.


Therefore, while writing and after completing this text, neither had I access to Moczulska’s text, nor was I aware of the appearance of two short but significant texts in Polish language, by Janusz Wałek (Walek, 2012) and Katarzyna Bik (Bik, 2012), respectively Head of Department of European Painting and plenipotentiary referent for the contacts with the media, of the National Museum in Krakow. These texts were published in digital version on February 13, 2012 on the Portal Rynek i Sztuka, on the occasion of The Lady with an Ermine’ s return in Krakow from the following Londoner exhibition held at the National Gallery: Leonardo da Vinci. Painter at the Court of Milan (9 November 2011-5 February 2012).


Their authors reproposed and detailed some of the correlations already present in the text of Moczulska and subsequently – to my great surprise – in the present text which I composed for Pascal Cotte and that had circulated partially in unedited form, before being made public here. Consequently, these surprising coincidences give me additional confidence in the plausibility of my hypothesis and allows me to affirm that, in this case, we have some similar hypotheses which have been reached independently and which start out from totally different assumptions and points of views.


By cooperating with international scholars and art historians, I can say that, generally, when such a coincidence of interpretations occurs casually, we can be very confident about the success of our respective research work.I wish to underline that I am a Fashion History specialist (XIII-XVI century) exceptionally investigating some iconographical instances – because I felt it appropriate to document as far as possible, my initial intuition which subsequently became a pondered hypothesis based on Pascal Cotte’s studies and on several vestimentary considerations of mine. I trust that this essay will be a small contribution to the ongoing debate about the origin and dating of this work of art without wishing to enter into questions of style not pertaining to my area of expertise. I do not exclude that the present essay, which originated from Cotte’s studies, may give rise to future in-depth analysis and additions, by fully displaying my vestimentary contributions (partly published in excerpt in Cotte’s volume and partly left unpublished) written at the friendly suggestion of Pascal Cotte whom I wish to thank for sharing with me a preview of the results of his findings.


I am also grateful to Mrs. Patricia Brennan for kindly supervising my English translation of most parts of this text: any surviving mistranslations are mine.




Selection of Sonnets composed by the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni, before 12 September 1492, in Francesco Tanci's sequential numbering for the edition of 1493 and proposed again in the edition of 1876 edited by Pietro Fanfani and published by Gaetano Romagnoli.




The poet: Deh! Why are you crying oh Phoebus? Phoebus: I am weeping and crying because today a bright sun is born The poet:More splendid than you?

Phoebus: I will tell you no lies: It shines brighter than I ever shone upon the shore [Lido]

The poet: I do not believe this, rather I laugh at it

Phoebus: Do not laugh because it is true and it pains me

The poet: since it is wise to rely on your words, tell me: how was it born and where did it make its nest?

Phoebus: A certain Moor’s semen originated this sun The sun is with Cicilia [Cecilia/Sicily] and its beautiful rays fixed under her beautiful white feathers

The poet: What will you do then?

Phoebus: I think I should sink

The poet: For what reason?

Phoebus: Because when [the sun] appeared I was overcome and there was an [solar ] eclipse.




If Phoebus is now crying, Cupid suffers still

because he will never be again, what he was at once,

Since he who wants to steal from

Him beauty, value, reputation, and glory [grido],

is born. Aeneas and Didione together, were not as happy,

as the tree of Thisbe (the Moor), with its progeny,

with the Island (Cecilia-Sicily) known to have said:

I’m separated from Your Italy only by the sea.

The fruit of Jupiter falls to us from the sky:

At my high fortress – He says – I ascribed Him,

And yet His father preserved my Reign (?).

His name is Cesare, I dedicated to Him my work [the poem]:

Mars held the wrath, (since He was) envious of me

That day when Phoebus seemed to hide his face




The one [ He who] who reminded Peter of His error,

of which Menalcas still blushes.

Teased by chattering He who has now become sea-salt

thanks to my Moro and He is no longer a nullity(zero)

But, if envy silences the truth,

In defiance of the one who holds this bone in his mouth,

The Moor is a club [better] stronger than an aliosso*

He is a typical ermine, even if He has a black/ name

He [ the Moor] placed a hedge around the ‘Italic’ garden

but the ill-speakers do not know it,

They rather know a tasty wine

Many are good Painters by words

They draw in the air with the ultramarine

but then They paint colours’ made of fava bean’s leaves!

They all became Moors [ similar to the Moor].

They who know, let them achieve their benefit

He who knows the pike** happily keeps it with Him


* Aliosso: the heel bone of the lamb with which children played in ancient times.

** Actually, in the original Italian poem, there is a play on words regarding the terms: Savoy [Chi sa voja]and Saluzzo [Chi sa ‘l luzzo] as the Duke of Savoy regained Saluzzo thanks to Il Moro.



(Following the translation quoted from: Martin Kemp, Pascal Cotte, The Story of the new masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. La Bella Principessa)


The poet: Nature, what provokes you, who arouses your envy?

Nature: It is Vinci, who has painted one of your stars!

Cecilia, today so very beautiful, is the one

Beside whose beautiful eyes the sun appears as a dark shadow.

The poet: The honour is yours [Nature], even if in his picture

She seems to listen and not converse.

Think only, the more alive and beautiful she is,

The greater will be your glory every future era.

Give thanks therefore to Ludovico, or rather

To the supreme talent [ingegno] and hand of Leonardo,

Which allows you to partake in posterity.

Everyone who sees her thus- even later,

Seeing her alive - will say, that this is enough for us

To understand what is nature and what is art.




Those ancient people

on the island of Delos where the sun wanted

to show them its bright rays after the great flood,

were not as happy as the Insubres are now

for the new sun that once was lying,

hidden in the garden of Cicilia [Cecilia/Sicily], where it was born,

As heaven seems to consent to righteous prayers

This is the Palladium and the Holy simulacrum

That Milan and formerly Troy, received.

As long as [Troy] had Palladium, the Heaven was favourable [to Troy]

By force or fraud, never may divine joy

be taken from Ludovico because now

I consecrate it to my Fortress”




Nowadays in Milan you must not consider as a wise man [Lupino= Wolf cub]*

He who attacks God and the lions, because He [the Moor]

distinguishes the lambs from the geldings

The Italic Moor, the White Ermine,

Do not think of pulling the water to your mill

because in Milan they do not spend ordinary coins [grossoni];

But the macaroni are good for that One

who impeded Dante’s walk**.

Unusual words and precious speech are not enough

when experience is needed:

As Gonzo said to the Calendar***.

The Moor rarely purchases on credit

Like St. Thomas He strives for clarity

and often catches whales by angling

This is certain,

at the end this wretched Lupino

shall not sell to the Moor the orichalcum in place of gold.


* The Lupino is perhaps to be considered as a mandator of the Lupa = the Church / the Papacy.

** That is the Lupa, indeed the symbol of the Church /the Papacy.

*** The Poet may be referring here to the Reform of the calendar which was carried out at that time and it seems that a certain Gonzo [?] pronounced these words.


Elisabetta Gnignera (specialist in the History of Costume and Hairstyles of the centuries XIII–XVI) all rights reserved ©



Bibliographical references:


B.BELLINCIONI, Le Rime, riscontrate sui manoscritti emendate a annotate da Pietro Fanfani. Gaetano Romagnoli, Bologna 1876

K.BIK, Kluczem jest zwierzątko. Dziesięć lat temu pojawiła się jeszcze jedna teoria mająca związek z tajemniczym zwierzątkiem trzymanym przez Cecylię Gallerani na obrazie Leonarda da Vinci in  http://rynekisztuka.pl/2012/02/13/dama-z-gronostajem-leonarda-da-vinci-wrocila-do-krakowa/ >, data edizione digitale: 13 febbraio 2012.

P.COTTE/, Lumiere on The Lady with an Ermine” / Lumiere sur La Dame à l’Hermine”. Vinci Editions, s.l. 2014

M.N.COVINI,Beatrice d’Este, i figli del Moro e la Pala sforzesca. Arte e politica dinastica in Luisa Giordano, (a cura di), Beatrice D’Este, 1475-1497, “Quaderni di Artes/2”, Edizioni ETS, Pisa 2008, pp.91-109.

A.EDITH HEWETT, A Newly Discovered Portrait by Ambrogio de Predis in

“The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs”, vol.10, No. 47 (Feb. 1907), pp. 308-313.

G.LOPEZ, I Signori di Milano. Dai Visconti agli Sforza. Storia e segreti.

Newton Compton, Roma, 2009.

G.MANZI, Trattato della pittura di Lionardo da Vinci tratto da un codice della biblioteca vaticana e dedicato alla maestà’ di Luigi XVIII, Re di Francia e di Navarrà. Stamperia De Romanis, Roma, 1817.

D.MEREJKOWSKI, The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci (1902) GP Putnam’s Sons, New York & London 1904.

K.MOCZULSKA, Leonardo da Vinci: “The Lady with an Ermine” – interpretation of the Portrait in “Bio-Algorithms and Med-Systems”, Journal edited by medical College- Jagiellonian University, Vol. 5, No. 9 (2009) pp.143-146.

J.M.MUSACCHIO, Weasels and Pregnancy in Renaissance Italy in “Renaissance Studies” 15, (No. 2, June 2001), pp. 172-87.

C.PEDRETTI, La “Dama con l’ermellino”come allegoria politica, in “Studi politici in onore di Luigi Firpo”, a cura di S. Rota Ghilardi - F. Barcia, I, Franco Angeli, Milano, 1990, pp. 161-181.

C.PESCIO (a cura di), Leonardo: arte e scienza. Giunti, Firenze, 2000.

D.PIZZAGALLI, La dama con l’ermellino. Vita e passioni di Cecilia Gallerani nella Milano di Ludovico il Moro (1999). Rizzoli, Milano, 2008.

L.RAZZOLINI, Indice delle edizioni citate come testi di lingua dagli Accademici della

Crusca nelle cinque compilazioni del loro vocabolario, per cura dell’Abate Luigi Razzolini, Gaetano Schiepatti editore, Milano, 1863, p.29 s.v. B. BELLINCIONI.

A.RONA, L’investitura di Lodovico il Moro dell’Ordine dell’Armellino, in “Arch. stor. Lombardo” (s. 10, vol.III, 1977: fascicolo 31 dic.), pp. 346-358.

E.SOLMI, La politica di Ludovico il Moro nei simboli di Leonardo da Vinci (1489-1499) in “Scritti varii di erudizione e di critica in onore di Rodolfo Renier”, Torino, Fratelli Bocca. 1912, pp.491-509.

T.STIGLIANI, Mondo Nuovo, Roma, s.n. 1628, p. 69

L.SYSON et al. Leonardo da Vinci: painter at the court of Milan,(Catalogue: The National gallery, London, 9 november 2011-5 february 2012), National Gallery Company, London, 2011.

C.VECCE, La parola e l’icona: dai rebus di Leonardo ai ‘fermagli’ di Fabricio Luna in “ Achademia Leonardi Vinci. Journal of Leonardo Studies & Bibliography of Vinciana”, VIII, 1995, pp. 173-183.

C.VECCE (a cura di), Leonardo da Vinci, Scritti. Mursia, Milano, 1992

M.VERSIERO, Al di là della tela...Il moro cogl’occhiali...”: le allegorie politiche di Leonardo da Vinci (Firenze e Milano, 1481-1494), in “Pittura Antica, oltre lo sguardo”, a. II, no. 2 (6), Marzo-Aprile 2006, pp. 6-20.

M.VERSIERO, La “Scopetta”, gli “occhiali” e la “cadrega” di fuoco: immagini sforzesche della Prudenza nelle allegorie politiche di Leonardo in “Iconographica”, IX, 2010, pp.107-113.

M.VERSIERO, Metafore zoomorfe e dissimulazione della duplicità. La politica delle immagini in Niccolò Machiavelli e Leonardo da Vinci in “Studi Filosofici”, XXVII, 2004, pp.101-125.

J.WALEK, "Dama z gronostajem” Leonarda da Vinci wróciła do Krakowa in < http://rynekisztuka.pl/2012/02/13/dama-z-gronostajem-leonarda-da-vinci-wrocila-do-krakowa/ >, data edizione digitale: 13 febbraio 2012.




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