Poland’s Mona Lisa: Lady with an Ermine

Poland’s Mona Lisa: Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine has a checkered past, having kept company with artists, noblemen, gentlewomen, thieves, and Nazis. But from now on, her heart belongs to Poland. The famous Czartoryski Collection, her cohort since 1798, has been purchased by the state, with the hope that she will never roam again.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Lady with an Ermine, ca.1490,  Inv. No MNK-MKCz  XII-209

Leonardo da Vinci, The Lady with an Ermine, ca.1490, Inv. No MNK-MKCz XII-209

The priceless artwork is one of only four portraits of women that da Vinci painted; one of them, of course, being the Mona Lisa. Like the Mona Lisa, the Lady has an enigmatic smile that can be attributed to modesty or inner amusement, or perhaps to something else entirely. Unlike her more famous sister at the Louvre, however, where long lines are hustled past the small painting, the Lady with an Ermine can be appreciated and studied up close and at length in her new quarters at the National Museum in Krakow.

Photo courtesy: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

The Lady‘s new and permanent home: National Museum in Krakow, Poland
Photo courtesy: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

Who Was She?The Lady is actually a girl of 16, Cecilia Gallerani. She was the mistress of da Vinci’s patron, the Duke of Milan. The ermine she holds so tenderly has been interpreted in at least two ways: one is that it represents the young woman’s purity, and another is that it refers to the Duke, who had been a member of the Order of the Ermine, and looked on the ermine as his personal emblem.

For the last five years she has been ensconced in Wawel Castle while the Czartoryski Museum underwent renovations. Photo: Polish National Tourist Bureau

For the last five years the Lady has been ensconced in Wawel Castle in Krakow
Photo: Polish National Tourist Bureau

Stolen from the Czartoryski MuseumPolish Princess Izabella Czartoryska founded the Czartoryski Museum to exhibit her collection of art and curiosities in her Krakow manor house in 1796, and her son brought the Lady home from a trip to Italy in 1798. Izabella sent her out of the country before the Russians invaded in 1830, and it returned to Krakow only in 1882. In a bid to keep the Lady from the Nazis in 1939, the Czartoryskis hid her in their summer home 130 miles east. She was discovered and seized. For several years she graced the offices of the Nazi governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, looking down on him with her mocking smile.

Shamelessly plundered, the rest of the Czartorski collection, including Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, was whisked away to Germany. The Raphael is one of hundreds of art pieces still missing.

Industrial-scale looting of Polish artThe Czartorski collection wasn’t the only one affected. The Nazi occupiers, and the Soviets after them, systematically looted Polish museums. It’s estimated that a half million art treasures were taken from Poland during those years.

So it’s especially fortunate that most of the Czartoryski collection was brought home after the war. When Poland became a democratic country again in 1989, the Czartoryski family reclaimed the collection. They set up a private foundation to oversee it, and the treasures were again exhibited in their manor house museum, up until the start of renovations in 2012.

National Museum in Krakow, Poland. Photo courtesy: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

National Museum in Krakow, Poland
Photo courtesy: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

Finding Permanent Residence in the National Museum of KrakowBesides the da Vinci, the Czartoryski collection includes Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Renoir, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and Albrecht Dürer, as well as thousands of artifacts, manuscripts, and curiosities gathered over the years. In today’s currency, it’s worth some two billion dollars.

In December 2016 Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, head of the family foundation, signed over ownership of the celebrated private collection to the Polish government for 100 million dollars, a fraction of its worth.

More than 500 years after she was painted, the Lady with an Ermine belongs to the Polish people, honoring Princess Izabella Czartoryska’s 18th century motto: “The past to the future.”

Visit the Lady with an ErmineShe can be admired at the National Museum in Krakow Tuesday-Saturday, from 10AM to 6PM. On Monday, hours are 10AM to 4AM.

National Museum in Krakow, Poland. Photo courtesy: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

National Museum in Krakow, Poland
Photo courtesy: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie

Travel to Poland with MIR

Little over two decades after regaining its independence, Poland has become one of the powerhouses of Europe. Visit the gracious capital of Warsaw and lovely Krakow (and Lady with an Ermine in the National Museum of Krakow), stroll the beaches of the Mazury Lake District, hike the trails of the spectacular Tatra Mountains, talk to the local people and you will agree with us.

MIR has over two decades of travel experience to Poland, with on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Contact MIR today at info@mircorp.com or 1-800-424-7289.

Visit the National Museum in Krakow on a…

Small Group Tour

MIR’s wintery small group tour to Poland, Christmas Traditions of Poland, is perfect for travelers of any age. Celebrate the heartfelt holiday traditions of Poland, wandering Krakow’s brilliant Christmas Market and joining a Polish family in their Warsaw home for the intimate Christmas Eve feast called Wigilia, where you can sample 12 different traditional dishes. This tour also includes a visit to the National Museum in Krakow, where you can get acquainted with the Lady with an Ermine.

Tour Customized to Your Dates, Interests, and Pace

Or, opt to travel to Poland any time of the year on our Essential Poland independent journey or on a custom private journey. Both of these travel options allow you to travel on your preferred travel dates, and you can include a stop at the National Museum in Krakow to see Lady with an Ermine.

MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.


Top photo: Leonardo da Vinci, The Lady with an Ermine, ca.1490, Inv. No MNK-MKCz XII-209

PUBLISHED: May 18, 2017

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