In 1550, Georgio Vasari's The Lives of the Artists was published, which included 120 biographies. Vasari was only eight when Leonardo died, but he worked and studied in Florentine workshops where the memory of Leonardo was still fresh. Vasari characterized Leonardo as being kind, elegant, regal, loving wild creatures and having great subtlety of mind. Leonardo was also well known for having a supernatural accumulation of gifts, prodigious physical skill and strength, and being physically beautiful.
The painting "Lady with an Ermine" is generally thought to be a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the current mistress of Duke Ludovica Sforza (1451-1508), called "the Moor" because of his dark hair and skin. (The Sforzas were not from Lombardy, but Romagna, had held power for only three generations in Milan, and been dukes for only two generations.) Leonardo served Ludovica for a disputed number of years, certainly as many as 13 and perhaps as many as 18. Unlike some of his ancestors, Ludovica was not a cruel man but complex, pragmatic, ambitious, and relatively well educated. He seduced Cecilia Gallerani, a Milanese girl of noble birth, when she was 14. She played the lute, wrote poetry, was very pretty, and was referred to as "Sappho," though that designation was actually more a form of flattery, since she was the first lady of the duchy and was much admired for keeping the duke's attention and loyalty, despite her youth. He gave her an estate near Saronos.
There is some dispute over the painting-it has been suggested that the painting might be of Bianca Maria Sforza or Beatrice d'Este-but the attribution of Cecilia Gallerani is probably correct because: (1) her face is similar to the angel Uriel in the "Virgin of the Rocks" and therefore probably comes from the same period; (2) her attentive air seems to fit a description by the poet Bellincion: "nature herself is jealous, since the beautiful young woman is so lifelike that she seems to be listening and only lacks speech." (Bromley, p. 201.); (3) she's holding an ermine or a marten-one of the duke's emblems; and (4) the Greek for ermine is gale, a play on her name, Gallerani.
The painting has been very damaged through time and the poor skills of a restorer, particularly with respect to the lines around the hand, shoulder and head. The background is too dark and the hair, which looks like it's tied under the chin, was originally a transparent veil. The left hand at one point was painted out and X-ray examination shows that a door or window was originally planned behind her shoulder. It is speculated that while her skin and the ermine are definitely by Leonardo, it's possible that Ambrogio Predis, with whom Leonardo was staying in Milan, did some of the rest of the painting. Leonardo used this Milanese colleague to survive at court and anyway preferred invention (conception of) a work, rather than what he called the servility of working it out.
Leonardo, was in favor at court by 1485, ended up in Milan because he made a silver lute in the shape of a horse's head which attracted the attention of Lorenzo de Medici, who offered this
'curiosity' to Ludovico Sforza, his Milanese ally. Leonardo wanted to leave Florence, so he decided to deliver the instrument in person. He wrote a long letter to offer his services; whether he sent the letter is unknown. Leonardo may have been bored with painting, having left the "Adoration" and "Saint Jerome" unfinished. He knew that military engineers were more in demand and the attraction of an official position in the court was also a factor. Leonardo worked in the court as an artist, painting portraits, supervising festivals, and designing a colossal equestrian sculpture to the duke's father, but he also became interested in other, nonartistic matters, applying his knowledge of mechanics to his duties as a civil and military engineer. His ventures into diverse scientific fields (anatomy, biology, mathematics, and physics) are well know, but these activities did not prevent him from completing his single most important painting, "The Last Supper." Milan fell to the French in 1499 (Napoleon used the room with "The Last Supper" to stable his horses) and Leonardo had to look elsewhere for employment. By 1550 he was back in Florence.
The painting was acquired by Prince Adam Czartoryski during the French Revolution, was brought to France 1830-1867 and hung in the Hôtel Lambert, where the Prince's family lived before they returned to Poland. This is an exquisite painting of a very beautiful, intelligent and powerful young woman who knew how to survive in the prevailing milieu and keep the attention of a powerful noble figure.