Review: “What the Ermine Saw” by Eden Collinsworth

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“Virtually every key event in modern Europe has been seen through the eyes of this painting, which Collinsworth vividly brings to life in his writing.”

Oith the brutal destruction of World War II ending, American soldiers rushed to a Bavarian vacation home to arrest Hans Frank, one of Adolf Hitler’s accomplices in both the Holocaust and the plunder of the great European artistic treasures in the secret plot to build a new museum in Linz. Frank owned Leonardo da Vinci’s c. 1489-1491 painting lady with an ermine when he was arrested, and he was later sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trials. How did this work of art end up in the hands of a Nazi butcher?

Contemporary American author Eden Collinsworth tells the story of Europe through the eyes of Cecilia Gallerani, the subject of the painting, and the ermine she is holding (supposedly symbolizing the tame sexuality of Ludovico Sforza), eternally locked in the High Renaissance. Maybe it’s not ironic that a freak like Frank has Cecilia and the Ermine watching him as he signs death warrants, causing him to complain about cramps in his hands because he signed too many in one day. The creation of painting is rooted in the darker side of human nature that moderns like to evacuate despite all the historical and empirical evidence revealing the abyss within us.

The story of lady with an ermine begins at the end of the medieval world, the Hundred Years War and the bubonic plague. Italy was not yet unified; at the end of the 15th century, it remained a divided land prey to the political and territorial ambitions of the Kingdom of France and the Habsburg emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Despite being caught between a rock and a hard place, northern Italy became a bastion of Renaissance culture and wealth. As Collinsworth reminds us, “economic prosperity is one of the prerequisites of art.” And Milan was now one of the great cities of economic prosperity that brought Leonardo into its gleaming walls in the service of the Sforza Dukes who ruled its golden age for just under a century.

The rise of Milan, the city where Leonardo would create his famous painting, is due in part to the condottier, mercenary soldiers, vagabonds, brigands and often murderers, who were bought by the Italian mercantile elites to defend their city in difficult times. The condottier allowed trade and banking to become important, which enriched northern Italy. And with its new riches came the splendor of the Renaissance.

what the ermine saw is a splendid account of the dark side of modern European history, beginning with those massacring mercenary soldiers, to the Nazi regime with its high culture phantasmagoria surrounded by corpses, to the brutal police state of the Soviet Union and its Attempt to Erase Eastern European Culture and Civilization. by Leonardo lady with an ermine witnessed these events with his own eyes. These events seen through the painting and its subject are the stories Collinsworth tells in his great new book.

Half art history, half general history, half meditation on the human condition, this new book also reveals to us the pilgrimage of the artistic soul. Leonardo was himself a pilgrim soul. Born out of wedlock, brought to Florence, seeking gain in Milan, engaging in the service of intellect, art, war and science, Leonardo lived an adventurous life, just like his painting that moved from city to city, from battlefield to office, from museum to museum. All the while he witnessed the rise and fall of regimes, conquerors and political systems over his five centuries of life.

Almost every key event in modern Europe has been seen through the eyes of this painting, which Collinsworth vividly brings to life in his writing.

From the intriguing and sensual rooms of Milan, Leonardo’s painting enters a lost period of two and a half centuries, probably still somewhere in Italy when the great European powers and the dynasties of Spain, France and Austria were quarreling his control. Somehow the painting survived and it reappears in Poland, the eventual “blood countries” of Europe. The Polish Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska became the new owner of the work.

Izabela is the kind of princess who should be the subject of a great bioepic. She was a Cleopatra spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Coming from a wealthy aristocratic family, her husband was presumed to be the next king of Poland before the complicit intrigues of Russia placed another man on the throne. Izabela had an affair with him. At the same time, she had an affair with the Russian ambassador. While visiting London, she had an affair with a French duke who would later have his head cut off by the guillotine during the Jacobin Terror. She had six children, by six different lovers. Benjamin Franklin was intoxicated by her charm.

While Izabela secured a future for her children, Poland’s future faded thanks to the political ambitions of Catherine the Great. But Izabela’s affair with the Russian ambassador meant that the family had ties to their new lords. The family maintained its status, even though it was subordinate and dependent on the good graces of the Romanovs.

The painting, which was sandwiched between Europe’s great political powerhouse in northern Italy, was now caught in the middle of Eastern Europe’s shifting alliances. The Russian Empire was on the rise; Russia had orchestrated the annexation of much of Poland. The Kingdom of Prussia was also trying to consolidate its dominance over the Germanies, which also came at the expense of Poland. All the while, the Habsburg Monarchy in Vienna sought to retain its control over Central Europe and wanted the potential threat from Poland eliminated. Poland was caught in the middle of the maelstrom and would eventually disappear from the map of Europe, only to temporarily reappear as a satellite duchy (the Duchy of Warsaw) for Napoleon Bonaparte, which meant that Poland was still not free.

With the advent of Napoleon, lady with an ermine reappears in the record books as part of the Czartoryska family art collection. With Poland’s demise as an independent nation, Izabela took it upon herself to build a museum of cultural renaissance that held on to the light of Polish tenacity (which she surely embodied in many ways). Now the painting has overseen the ambitious, if naïve, plan of Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, one of Izabela’s sons, to secure his country’s independence.

Napoleon had come and gone. But the winds of reform and revolution were blowing. The hope for a new Polish nationalism, which smoldered alongside the nationalisms of so many other oppressed ethnic groups in Europe under the heavy weight of medieval and modern monarchies that suppressed them, brought a new energy of life unmatched before painting. These plans for a reconstituted Poland failed, however.

Painting then fled as a refugee to Paris, where prominent Polish artists and intellectuals ventured after their failed revolution. The painting was part of the collection of the Hôtel Lambert. During the Franco-Prussian War, with the siege of the city of Paris, the painting survived. He may have snuck off to London. Or, more likely, he remained in hiding as the city was bombed and domestic revolution erupted in the streets.

After the defeat of France against Prussia, lady with an ermine was on the move again. She returned with Wladyslaw Czartoryska who kept her in his private apartment before restoring her to a recently renovated museum in the city of Krakow, the Czartoryska Museum. The painting managed to survive another war and was now among the most prized works of art in a newly established independent Poland after 1918. It didn’t last long as we know the horror that followed the First World War.

Hitler was more than just a brutal dictator. He was also a man who thought he knew the culture. The German higher education system had produced some of the world’s finest art historians, critics, and artists who sought to flourish under the Nazi regime. Hitler’s plan for a new museum in Linz (near Hitler’s birthplace) caught their rampant attention. Men enlisted to help loot works of art from major European museums in preparation for Hitler’s fantastic dream of a museum that would dominate all other museums. As Collinsworth writes, “countless other art experts became implacable participants in the organized plunder of Germany.”

Frank now enters the picture frame. Careless German soldiers nearly destroyed the painting, but it was saved by Zofia Szmit before being captured by Gestapo agents searching for the painting. Frank ended up pressuring Hitler for his possession and hung him up in his office as he signed death warrants. There the painting stood, overlooking the crimes of the Nazi spirit of death, until the tide of World War II turned in favor of the Allies. With the Soviets now about to liberate Poland and the Western allies pushing east from France and Italy, the painting took refuge with Frank as he fled to Bavaria. At a vacation home, American soldiers tasked with recovering looted art from Europe found it when Frank was arrested.

In the brief post-war climate of hope, the painting was sent back to Poland before being recovered by the Soviet authorities and transported to Moscow. Once again Leonardo’s great painting found itself surrounded by the chains of tyranny. From fascism to communism, lady with an ermine now witnessed the founding events of the Cold War from Moscow. With some righteous irony, the painting also witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union thanks, in part, to the solidarity movement in Poland, the country where the painting has long resided. Despite the brutality of the Soviet regime’s anticultural policies and the threat of nuclear armageddon, painting persevered through the Cold War and triumphantly witnessed the end of the Soviet Union. Now free from Soviet tyranny, the painting traveled west to be seen again in its splendor in Poland despite all the horror and violence it had witnessed for 500 years. (He also traveled extensively for many exhibitions in the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

The story of one of Leonardo’s great paintings testifies to the mystique of beauty, an ideal that many philosophers would consider to be among the transcendentals. Amid sexual deception, scheming politics, war, crimes against humanity, and political tyranny (all of which are dark forces seeking to erase the beauty of the world), the beauty that Leonardo created in his painting remained – a little light in the dark. Most of the kingdoms and characters encountered by the painting have faded away. But its beauty remains. Collinsworth’s fantastic book is a testament, for those with eyes to see, to that ancient and enduring truth that beauty cannot be destroyed. And in the survival of lady with an erminewe also witness a most fascinating but equally dark panorama of the history to which it was linked.

Paul Krause is the editor of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and has contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause



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