What Ermine Saw: Book Summary, the Story of the World’s Most Famous Painting

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What Ermine Saw: The Extraordinary Journey of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Most Mysterious Portrait  by Eden Collinsworth (Hard Cover; 272 Pages) 

Brief Overview

Leonardo da Vinci is such a great artist and overall polymath that even people who do not know much about art are likely to know his name.  A teenage ninja mutant turtle was even named after him, to cite a favorite cartoon of my younger brother while he was growing up.

Da Vinci is famous for many works of art, including the Mona Lisa with her famous smile.  Eden Collinsworth, a media executive and chief of staff at a global think tank, was mesmerized by a somewhat lesser known work.  The Lady with an Ermine fascinated her from first sight.  

The assured, beautiful young girl holding white ermine is a classic work of art.  Like the Mona Lisa, you are driven to learn about the subject.  And, what about that strange-looking animal, who turns out to not only symbolize purity but is known to be a dangerous predator?  

The work of art turns out to be but a piece of the story.  First painted to honor an Italian duke’s mistress, the painting began a five-hundred-year journey around Europe, including a mysterious period of over a century when its location is only open to guesswork.  

The journey is filled with intrigue and fascinating stories, many of which involve strong and intriguing women. The women include Polish royalty, a museum worker who helped save stolen artwork, and a Soviet minister of culture who survived Stalin to become a member of the inner circle of power.   Now hanging in Kraków Museum, the Lady with an Ermine continues to amaze.

Eden Collinsworth handles all of this with novel writing verve.  A tale over five hundred years old, and still continuing, this is a fascinating book many readers should enjoy.

Favorite Quote/Takeaway

It’s easy to believe that Lady with an Ermine exists in a rarefied realm of its own. But the cold, bare truth is that it was paid for with the ill-gotten gains from previous generations of professional killers.  

Eden Collinsworth

This book takes us on a journey of over five hundred years involving a lesser-known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci.  We learn about its creation and the stories of its owners (including Nazis) through the centuries.  This quote gives you a taste of the stories involved in this book.  

Should I Read It?

This is a well-written account for the lay reader that often reads like a novel.  

We get a feel for many historical characters, including strong women dealing with a men’s world throughout the ages.  Five hundred years seem to fly by.  This is not a book for someone who wants an in-depth look at the painting itself, including its style and composition.  

This is covered, but the book is more focused on stories.  The book is also not meant to be an expert account.  The author upfront tells us she is not a historian or an art expert.  But, she still carefully tells a story over five hundred years in scope and tells it well.  

The book has many black and white photographs as well as a color photograph of the painting. There is a list of primary sources and additional reading, but no endnotes or index.  


Comprehensive Summary

Part One: Soldiers of fortune, a cunning Italian duke, a remarkable young woman, and the rare genius connecting them. 

From the ninth and fifteenth centuries, five city-states in Italy were centers of wealth, trade, and political power.  This is where Marco Polo lived.  It also was a bloody business, with a series of wars that were largely fought with merciless mercenary armies.  

The quality of leadership is suggested by the Visconti coat of arms, which helped to inspire the Alfa Romeo Symbol, containing an image of a man (or child) being eaten by a snake.   Francesco Sforza (a mercenary made good) took over control of Milan from this family.  

Ludovico Maria Sforza ruled as the Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499. A supporter of the arts, he was a patron of the great artist and polymath Leonarda Da Vinci.  Da Vinci was chosen to paint a portrait of Ludovico’s young mistress, Cecilia Gallerani.  Much later, this painting would be named “The Lady with an Ermine.”  The book covers the often soap opera-like details.  

Da Vinci was a survivor, moving through many patrons, including after Sforza himself lost power.  Sforza’s wife and her sister also were survivors and powers in their own right.  Sforza’s marriage to Beatrice was a political move.  Beatrice’s sister Isabella was a “social influencer” in her day (including the fashion of her shoes) and patron of the arts.  

Part Two: The portrait’s missing years; its next recorded owner, a Polish princess who was a cross between feminine charm and dynamite.  

Cecilia Gallerani eventually was shunted off into a marriage with minor royalty and died years later.  She might have lent Isabella the famous painting for some time. What happened to it after Cecilia died is unclear.  The book offers various theories but it simply is not clear.

The portrait thus disappears from history from the early 16th Century until the mid-18th, which takes us into the Enlightenment Era in Europe.  We now learn about one of those amazing women in history, Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska (b. 1742) of Poland.  

Poland was a great power in Europe at this time.  Izabela’s mother died giving birth to her.  She later married a much older man, who was both supportive of his wife’s mind but also looked the other way while she had multiple affairs (and children) with a range of men throughout Europe! 

This was also the age of Catherine the Great and Russia taking control of Poland.  Izabela always hoped Poland to return to its glory, but it was not to be in her lifetime.  One of her sons became a Russian ambassador to Italy.  This overlapped with Napolean’s military campaigns in Italy, which led a lot of Italian nobility to come into financial difficulties.  

The details, as they are at various points in this story, are not totally clear. Nonetheless, Izabela’s son obtained the Lady with an Ermine and gave it to his mother.  Izabela’s son (Adam Jerzy) was a loyal Polish patriot like his mother, but an uprising against Russia was doomed to fail.  Adam Jerzy was banished and wound up in France.  

The painting went with him. Jerzy honored Polish culture and was a dedicated art collector, following in the footsteps of his mother. After his death in 1861, Jerzy’s son continued the family’s legacy.  He helped establish a great public museum in Kraków, now under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The painting was transferred there as well.  

The family was given the authorization and responsibility to run the museum.  

Part Three: Hidden in advance of the German invasion of Poland, discovered by the Gestapo, fought over by high-ranking Nazis, the portrait is transported to Berlin and then returned to Poland, where it bears witness to one of history’s immoral undertakings.

Adolf Hitler was a failed artist.  As the leader of Germany, Hitler saw art as an important part of the promotion of Nazi ideology.  Nazi control of Europe, including its war on the Jews that became the Holocaust, was also a major opportunity for German officials to loot works of art.  

Further Reading: Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times  (Jewish refugee from the Nazis).

In July 1939, Hitler summoned Hans Posse, an art historian, for the purpose of collecting works of art to set up a special museum.  Posse already was a footnote in the Lady with an Ermine affair when he tried to interfere with its return to the Polish museum after it was temporarily held in Germany years earlier.  Shortly afterward, Germany invaded Poland

Hans Posse set his sights on finding the painting once more.  The painting was at first hidden with the help of a Polish housekeeper along with other valuable artwork.  Posse eventually got his hands on the painting.  It was put on a train with other artwork to be sent to Germany.  Posse himself would soon die of cancer in 1942 with Joseph Goebbels giving a eulogy.  

But, the German governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank got a hold of it first. Frank displayed it in his office.  Frank was later executed for his many war crimes in 1946.  

Attempts are still being made to return wrongly seized works of art to their rightful owners.  Rose Valland, an art historian working at a French museum that was fluent in German, is one of the many heroes who has helped the effort.  While art was being seized during WWII, she was secretly documenting the works, which later was used to help track the stolen materials.  

Part Four: Rescued from a depot in Munich, the portrait is warehoused in Poland under Stalin’s Communist reign; it is flown to Moscow under Soviet orders; and at the end of the Cold War it is seen for the first time in the West.

The Lady with an Ermine continued its travels.  Hans Frank was arrested by Americans. If he was arrested by the Soviets, the artwork might have along with much more booty of war been sent back to the Soviet Union.  

Instead, it was found by Karol Estreicher, the secretary to the Polish minister in exile.  The painting would be returning to Cold War Poland.  The painting was transferred to a museum in Warsaw, given an elaborate new frame, and subject to up-to-date scientific analysis.  

In the 1970s, it was “loaned” to Puskin Museum in the Soviet Union, a museum run for decades by Irina Antonova.  Antonova’s coup in getting the artwork was aided by “Madame Furtseva,” the glamorous Soviet minister of culture.  The trip and transfer were carefully scripted.  

The painting eventually returned to Poland.  Time marched on.  The Soviet Union was no more and communist control ended in country after country in Europe.  The Polish museum was made into a foundation that worked with the Polish government.  And, the Lady with an Ermine started to be shown in museums throughout the West.  Each time treated like a celebrity.

The family art collection that includes the famous lady with her strange-looking animal was eventually sold for a very low price (maybe 5% of its true value) to the Polish government.  The painting hangs today in Kraków Museum.  The painting continued to be analyzed to learn about how it was painted.  In the process, we are learning more about Leonardo himself.  

Time Line: The book ends with a detailed timeline that spans from 1450 until 2019.  

Points to Ponder

Modern techniques allow us to study paintings in a scientific fashion. 

Art experts can now determine in an even more nuanced fashion the way a painting was formed, including the composition of the paint itself.  The scientific methods also allow us to “look under” the final product to speculate about what was painted originally.  

It is known that Leonardo seemed never to be satisfied with his paintings.  The different layers of paint found in his works provide an insight into his mind.  Similar techniques are used when analyzing old writings.  Modern science can analyze erasures and marginalia even more minutely.  

Such analysis leads to some interesting insights though at some point is it much ado about nothing?  Should not the final work be our focus?  If Leonardo added the ermine as almost an afterthought, how much does that even matter?  


Eden Collinsworth is a former media executive and chief of staff of a global think tank addressing practical solutions to global security threats.  She also wrote:

  • Behaving Badly  (A Book About Morals) 
  • I Stand Corrected  (A Memoir) 
  • It Might Have Been What He Said  (A Novel) 

Is What The Ermine Saw A Reliable Source?

The author notes upfront that she is “neither a historian nor an art expert but consulted many of both on the subject of this book.”  

She includes a sizable list of sources while not using endnotes.  I prefer endnotes though it is fairly common for books for a general audience, especially “short introduction” type books, to leave them out.   The question remains if we can trust her as a reliable source.

Collinsworth’s previous two non-fiction books did not deal with historical subjects to this length.  So, given my general practice of including books here written by people experts in the subjects involved (a rough rule not always followed), I was a bit wary.  Nonetheless, checking things out, reviewers have provided positive judgments.  Her reliability is generally not challenged.

I found one review (by a professor with a book on a Renaissance-related subject) somewhat wary about some of the author’s suppositions.  The author note also says, after all, that “only when no facts could be found did I engage in speculation.”   

What book on historical subjects does not?  Does a book of hundreds of pages about Cleopatra, who we know not that much about really, not engage in speculation?  The test there is reasonableness.  I think her judgment calls here, which she references openly, are reasonable.  

This book is an interesting one that tells a good tale.  It does so following the proper approach for nonfiction historical works.  I would not use this book alone if I was writing scholarly work on the subjects covered here.  But, for the general reader, this is a reliable source.