A Girl and an Animal
One of my favorite paintings is in the news today. There she is, as she looks today (left) and as fresh as when the artist set down his brush circa 1490 (right), thanks to a painstaking digital scanning process that virtually peels away the years.
She's more than 500 years old. But look how modern! That girl -- we think her name was Cecilia, and she's probably all of 16 or 17 -- is a mistress of one of the Sforzas, in one of the most opulent, decadent, violent courts in a grim and plague-ridden Europe. The 15th century, like the 20th, had the ugly distinction of being measurably more vicious than the one before.
Look at the eyes, the smile. "La bele Ferioniere." She is intriguing, in both meanings of that word. She knows what she is and why she's there, in that high castle in Milan. Survival of the fittest. And she seems quite pleased with it all. There easily could be force and coercion involved in such a relationship as hers. But she seems to be playing the game, too. She's more like the fly girl hanging on the arm of an NBA rookie or movie star, or the stage-door groupie of a rock star from the '70s. Even her hairstyle has that vaguely 1973-ish look.
It's not hard to know what Leonardo thought of her. The ermine, or stoat, as I've always called it, might have been a pun on her name, might have been a pet, might have been an emblem of something in the Sforzas. Whether the animal was chosen and paired with her to symbolize lithe, cruel, hot cunning is conjecture, but the way he posed them together, head, eyes, hand, paw, makes them close as kin in this painting. Sisters of a tribe.
Jacob Bronowski, the great mathematician scientist who tried to hold together the twin cultures of science and literature as they fell apart, with everything else, in the 20th century, had perhaps seen it in Poland as a boy. The painting has been in Crakow since the 1700s. Bronowski, however, had left Poland, and settled in England a few decades before the Nazis liquidated most of his relatives not far from Crakow at a railway stop called Oświęcim by the local Poles and Auschwitz by the Germans.
The Nazis looted the painting, along with everything else of art and culture they could pry loose, and Hans Frank, who did so much to destroy Poland and its Jews, "the only one of the condemned to enter the chamber with a smile" after the Nuremberg Trials, had it in his office for a time.
Here is what Bronowski wrote about the painting in 1956:
Leonardo has matched the stoat in the girl. In the skull under the long brow, in the lucid eyes, in the stately, brutal, beautiful and stupid head of the girl, he has re-discovered the animal nature; and done so without malice, almost as a matter of fact. The very carriage of the girl and the stoat, the gesture of the hand and the claw, explore the character with the anatomy. As we look, the emblematic likeness spring as freshly in our minds as it did in Leonardo's when he looked at the girl and asked her to turn her head. The Lady with a Stoat is as much a research into man and animal, and a creation of unity, as is Darwin's Origin of Species. ["Science and Human Values"]