Renaissance Faces New Exhibition Brings Da Vinci to Berlin

Berlin is buzzing over the arrival of a new woman in town. The city has been waiting to see her serene beauty unveiled for months, and tomorrow she will finally show her face. Despite the hype, most of Cecilia Gallerani's fans don't even know her name. But visitors will soon be lining up to glimpse her portrait -- a work by Leonardo da Vinci.

By Alison Kilian


For months now, Berliners have seen her face on buses, posters and local news programs. Starting Thursday, they will be able to see her portrait in person at a special exhibit of Renaissance art at Berlin's Bode Museum.

Cecilia Gallerani was about 16 years old when she sat for a portrait by the Italian master Leonardo da Vinci. Well-educated and talented in music, Gallerani was best known as being the favorite mistress of the Duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza. Her image, "Lady with an Ermine," is one of only a handful of portraits of women Da Vinci completed, and draws comparisons with his other masterpiece, the Mona Lisa.

On loan from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, the portrait is slightly removed from the others in the Berlin exhibit, and is set further back from the public's reach. In an otherwise quiet exhibition, she is surrounded by an eager mass of people vying for a front-row view of her striking face and, like her counterpart in the Louvre, her slightly mysterious smile.

It is not the first time she has appeared in Berlin. In 1939, shortly after the German invasion of Poland, the portrait was taken from Krakow and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Then Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor General of Poland, who was later tried and executed for war crimes, had the portrait returned to Krakow, where he hung it in his suite of offices. Allied troops discovered the painting at the end of the war in Frank's Bavarian country home and returned it to Krakow.

The Da Vinci is one of more than 150 paintings, drawings, medals and busts on display in the "Renaissance Faces" exhibition. A joint effort of Berlin's Gemäldegalerie National Museums and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit gives visitors an intimate look at the evolution of Renaissance portraiture, and includes works from renowned artists like Gentile Bellini and Sandro Botticelli. It is the portraits, showing elegant Renaissance ladies, Italian noblemen, and, in Cecilia Gallerani's case, their mistresses, that are attracting the most attention.

Renaissance Ideals of Beauty

Until the 15th century, independent portraits like these were usually reserved for important rulers or historical figures. But as the Renaissance progressed, artists began painting individuals beyond this elite realm, contributing to the concept of individualism developing at the time -- and cementing a contemporary ideal of beauty.

"The extent to which Renaissance women were willing to sacrifice personal identity in the interest of conventional beauty…may be a surprise," Keith Christiansen, senior curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and co-curator of the exhibition, said at a press conference. He points to the inordinate amount of blond women seen in the portraits -- many women in Renaissance Venice lightened their hair -- as an example. The "magazine ideal," Christiansen said, "is not an invention of this century."

Visitors to the exhibition can get a close look at these Renaissance ideals of beauty, as the portraits are displayed so that viewers can approach the pieces directly. This allows for a proximity that, curators say, was considered an important element of the exhibition's aesthetic. "You can see them very close up," Christiansen notes, explaining that an effort to maintain this intimacy -- and keep pieces safe -- is part of the reason why only 300 people are allowed in to the exhibit at a time.

The Berlin portion of the exhibition opens to the public on Aug. 25 and runs until Nov. 20, after which many of the pieces will move to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the New York show opening Dec. 19. Since some lenders don't want their valuable pieces making costly transatlantic flights, not all of the Berlin pieces will be shown in New York -- and vice versa.

Da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine" can be seen in Berlin until Oct. 31, when it departs for the highly-anticipated Da Vinci Exhibition opening at London's National Gallery on Nov. 9.

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