Alan Mason tells us all about the lady with a ferret (or ermine) by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is famous for a single female portrait, “La Gioconda” (The Smiling One) also known as “The Mona Lisa”, but he painted just three other portraits of young women. I have always been fascinated by his painting “Lady with a Ferret”, as much for the rare appearance in fine art of a ferret, as for the beautiful young woman.
Stoats, Ermines, Weasels, Polecats, and Ferrets
As is often the case, the painting has alternative titles, and in the book from which the first illustration is taken, (References A) it is called, “Lady with an Ermine, or Weasel” neither of which is correct. Consequently, some examination of natural history is needed here. The Mustelidae are a group of small carnivorous killers, the best-known European ones are the stoat, the weasel and the polecat. The stoat and weasel are quite small, while the polecat is bigger (2). The ferret is a domesticated albino version of the polecat. The animal in the painting is too big for a weasel or stoat, and is undoubtedly a ferret.
More accurate information on the relative sizes of the three species of animals is given below. The published data from References C has been processed by the author, in an “Excel” program, to create the two graphs. These show that polecats and ferrets are distinctly longer in the body than weasels or stoats, and also, in terms of body weight, they are far and away heavier.
The stoat has the most grandiose persona, because in winter, its brown/black coloured coat moults, and is replaced by a white winter coat, except for the tail which remains black (3). In this guise it is called an ermine, hence the alternative title for the painting. The word “ermine” in English has come to be a shorthand word for “nobility”, because the red robes of peers of the realm are trimmed with white ermine skins. The black tails are attached to the white fur. When the Corsican adventurer, Napoleon Buonaparte, crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804, he used plenty of ermine (4) to advertise his newly-found nobility.
It is claimed (References F) that the medieval nobility kept ermines as pets. What is much more certain is that people, from peasants to the nobility kept ferrets (domesticated polecats) for hunting small game, particularly rabbits. It seems clear that the difference between weasels, ermines, and ferrets was not always understood, even by Leonardo, however he chose to call the animal he painted an ermine because of its literary and philosophical associations.
Animals as Psychological Symbols
In classical times, and including the medieval and Renaissance period of this painting, animals were associated with various virtues, vices and styles of behaviour, as exemplars or warnings to humanity. Almost all of these ideas and associations were complete nonsense, as the rationalist, scientific investigations from the eighteenth century onwards have shown.
For example, the pelican was thought to feed its nestlings with her own blood, by pecking her breast (6). This is complete nonsense, of course, but this bird was widely used as a symbol of pious behaviour, especially in the heraldry of the nobility. Similarly, the lion was considered to be the “King of Beasts”, and a symbol of courage and fortitude. It was, perhaps, the most widely-used animal symbol in medieval heraldry (7). We now know that lions are incredibly lazy beasts, and the lionesses do most of the killing. A recent deskarati post showed three African tribesmen calmly walking up to eleven lions, (yes, eleven!) feeding on a wildebeest they had killed, and seeing them all run away, allowing the men to saunter off with a shoulder of meat they had cut off with a machete.
The ermine was part of this fanciful philosophy of virtues and vices. It was believed that an ermine would accept death rather than soil the purity of its white coat, which is patently nonsense. However, most animals in confinement will try to avoid soiling their fur, and I am sure this is true of stoats or ermines, as well. From personal experience I know that ferrets kept in cages normally look quite clean, because they are careful to pass their droppings in a corner where they do not sleep.
Leonardo, for all his scientific enthusiasm, also subscribed to the semi-mystical nonsense that overstated the natural instinct of animals to keep themselves clean. He is reported as saying, when he was an old man (8), “The ermine out of moderation, never eats but once a day, and would rather let itself be captured by hunters, than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.” (References F) One would have loved to ask Leonardo, “How do you know this is true? Have ever observed ermines closely, or are you just repeating ignorant suppositions?”
Quite clearly, Leonardo was a man of his times, and we cannot expect him to have escaped from all the mental constraints of the medieval and Renaissance period. What he did with this beautiful painting was to take a popular fallacy, and imbue it with several different meanings. As J C Cooper explains, “The ermine stands for innocence, chastity and purity – but here the symbolism may have been double-edged, for the lady is thought to be the mistress of Lodovico Il Moro (9), (Louis the Moor, or Black Man) of the Sforza family (10), and their emblem was the ermine.” (References G)
The History of the Lady
The beautiful young lady of the painting has been identified as Cecilia Galerani, and, according to Trewin Copplestone, she was the person, “who for ten years charmed the court of Lodovico Sforza (in Milan) with her great beauty and excellent wit.” Lodovico, the Duke of Milan, was Leonardo’s employer and in all probability commissioned him to paint Cecilia’s portrait.
At the time she was painted, Cecilia was about sixteen but her later life was tinged with sadness. Although she is described as “The Lady with a Ferret”, she came of relatively humble origins. Her father was an official of the Duke’s court, but had no claims to gentility, but plenty of aspirations. He had managed to arrange, when Cecilia was ten, for her betrothal to a young nobleman of the House of Visconti (11), who had long been bitter rivals of the House of Sforza, mainly because the Visconti had originally been Dukes of Milan, until supplanted by the Sforza.
Cecilia’s betrothal never proceeded to marriage and she transferred her interests from the Visconti, to the court of Lodovico Sforza, becoming his mistress and bearing him a son in 1491. Although he acknowledged the child as his own, Lodovico chose not to marry Cecilia, possibly because of her lowly social status and instead married the noble Beatrice d’ Este (12).
Another theory about the reason for using a ferret in the painting, comes from the Greek word, γαλη, gale, (pronounced gar lee) meaning any small Mustelid, like ferret, polecat, weasel, ermine, or stoat. This is a punning reference to Cecilia’s family name, Galerani, and while this seems an obscure argument at first glance, it avoids the debate about what kind of Mustelid is depicted, and the use of a symbol of purity for a concubine. A further speculation concerns the association of ferrets with pregnancy. Given that Cecilia gave birth in 1491 and the painting was made around 1489 – 90, she may well have been pregnant at the time. The head begins to whirl with this multiplicity of associations.
On Ferrets Again
I shall conclude with a few personal recollections, beginning with a conversation I had, with a young woman about the Leonardo painting.
How could that girl bear to handle ferrets?
Well, ferrets are inquisitive, charming, friendly animals, and quite ready to play (13). In some ways they are rather like small dogs.
But I thought they were aggressive, bloodthirsty, and ready to bite you?
They only bite you if they are frightened or hurt.
Don’t they smell?
Ferrets, like most of the Mustelids, have anal glands that make a bad smell if they are angry or frightened, but normally they don’t do this. Of course, they have a “ferrety smell”, just as dogs have a “doggy smell”, and people have a “people smell”. For people who like ferrets, this smell is not unpleasant, any more than a “horsey” smell is unpleasant to people who like horses and ride them.
How come you know so much about ferrets?
I had a job, for a year, in a place with a very large number of ferrets, around two hundred, so I got to know what they are like. When new ferrets arrived from the breeders in a large open crate, they were frightened and fighting mad. They could only be handled with thick leather gloves. They quickly found that no one wanted to hurt them, and they were well-fed on regular meals. Each day they were handled with gloves, talked to, and had their tummies tickled. After about three weeks they became calm, and relaxed enough to be handled with bare hands. They rarely bit anyone, and although they remained active and inquisitive, they were not aggressive (14).
One of the curious things about Leonardo’s painting is that the ferret is rather sharp-featured (15), compared with modern ferrets which are almost unbelievably cute (16). It may be that this difference is due to selective breeding over the intervening six hundred years.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have made use of a number of reference works to check facts and details, but the opinions expressed are my own, unless otherwise stated.
A. “Leonardo” by Trewin Copplestone, Selectabook, 1998
B. “The Encyclopedia of Animals” editor Per Christiansen, Amber, 2006
C. “British Mammals” by L Harrison Matthews, Readers’ Union, 1960
D. “The Life and Times of Napoleon” Mario Rivoire, Hamlyn, 1967
E. “Heraldry” by J S Milbourne, Foyle, 1950
F. Wikipedia article on “Lady with an Ermine,” quoting James Beck, from his book, “The Dream of Leonardo da Vinci”
G. “An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols” by J C Cooper, Thames and Hudson, 1978
H. “Ferrets 2012” photographs by Xavier Chantrenne, Brown Trout, 2012
1. “Lady with a Ferret” By Leonard da Vinci (Copplestone, op. cit)
2. Two wild European Mustelidae (Christiansen, op. cit)
3. The stoat or ermine in its winter coat (Christiansen, op. cit)
4. Napoleon crowns himself in 1804 (Rivoire, op. cit)
5. Heraldic version of ermine (Milbourne, op. cit)
6. The heraldic pelican, “in her piety” (Milbourne, op. cit)
7. The heraldic lion rampant (Milbourne, op. cit)
8. Leonardo da Vinci 1492 – 1519 self – portrait made in his earl sixties (Copplestone, op. cit)
9. Lodovico (Il Moro) Sforza (google image)
10. The Heraldic Arms of the Sforza family (“For Everything Genealogy”)
11. The Heraldic Arms of the Visconti family (google image)
12. Portrait of Beatrice d’ Este, wife of Lodovico Sforza (google image)
13. A ferret from the twenty-first century (Chantrenne, op. cit)
14. A “polecat ferret” (Chantrenne, op. cit)
15. Cecilia’s ferret by Leonardo da Vinci (Copplestone, op. cit)
16. “Ready for a game?” (Chantrenne, op. cit)