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Read Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s article, “Weasels and Pregnancy in Renaissance Italy,” posted on Blackboard. Write a 250-300 word post that considers how her article enhances your understanding of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Cecilia Gallerani and your understanding of the ways that women’s roles were represented in Italian Renaissance visual and material culture more broadly. Finally, think about the expectations of women in our own time and place, and briefly compare and contrast contemporary constructions of femininity with those that Musacchio explores.
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Renaissance Studies Vol. 15 No. 2
Weasels and pregnancy in Renaissance Italy
JACQUELINE MARIE
MUSACCHIO
The popularity of various members of the weasel, or mustelid, family in
Renaissance art has gone largely unnoticed. Yet they appear in various
guises in contemporary paintings, such as the much-debated portrait of a
woman with a white-coated weasel by Leonard0 da Vinci (Fig. l).’Much has
been made of the lifelike nature of this portrait, and Leonardo’s attention to
detail in the representation of both woman and beast. But what exactly is
this animal, and why does it figure so prominently in the painting? An
examination of contemporary marital and childbirth practices indicates that
weasels may have been used to imply or foreshadow pregnancy.
Weasels form a diverse grouping of almost seventy carnivorous species that
includes martens, ermines, sables, and skunks, among others.’ They live on
almost every continent, in a variety of different settings. A number were
indigenous to western Europe, an important fact since the capture of
Constantinople in the middle of the fifteenth century drastically reduced the
supply of imported furs from colder eastern climates.’ Indeed, several species
inhabited the formerly underdeveloped reaches of the Italian peninsula, and
some can still be found there. These animals were particularly valuable for
their fur, and an active market in their pelts resulted in a profitable fur trade.
The different species were virtually interchangeable to the Renaissance mind,
so they will be examined collectively here?
Much of the research and writing of this article took place at The Walters Art Museum and Trinity University.
I could not have completed it without the gracious interest and assistance of Blake de Maria and Caroline P.
Murphy.
Bibliographic information on this painting can be found in Barbara Fabjan and Pieuo C. Marani (eds),
L e a a n i o . La Doma con l%nncllino (Milan, 1998).
On mustelids, see Carolyn King, The Natural Hislory of Weasels and Stoats (Ithaca, 1989); Paddy Sleeman,
Slo& and Weasels, Polecats and Martens (London, 1989); Ernst P. Walker el aL, Mammals offhe World (Baltimore
and London, 1975), 1189-97.
For information on fur, see Carole Collier Frick, ‘Dressing a Renaissance city: society, economics, and
gender in the clothing of fXteenthcentury Florence’, Ph.D dissertation, University of California (Los Angeles,
1995),382-6.
As evidence for the lack of species distinction, see FranCois Rabelais’s Gargonlua and Panlagruel (Book
rv.35), where Pantagruel conflates chitterlings, squirrels, weasels, martens, and ermines; I am grateful to John
Martin for this reference. A wide range of animals must have been utilized for clothing and accessories,
depending on availability and financial means. For example, an estate inventory of the Venetian furrier
Josephus Pacano from the early seventeenth century describes fur from Sicilian wolves, Calabrian ermines,
Spanish cats, and other sources. But this specificity was due to the need to determine the value of Pacano’s
estate; in most cases the vocabulary was more generic (Archivio di Stat0 Venice [henceforth ASV],Notarile atti,
Giovan Andrea Catti, b.3391,5′-7′; I am grateful to Blake de Maria for this citation).

*

0 2001 The Society f
i
Renaissance Studies, Oxfoord University Press
Weasels and pregnancy in Renaissance Italy
173
Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, Cecilia G a l h n i , c. 1490. Muzeum Czartoryski, Cracow (ScaldArt Resource, New
York)
In 1900,Jan B. Antoniewicz identified the woman in Leonardo’s painting
as Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Lodovico Sforza of Milan, and more recent
archival work by Janice Shell emphatically upholds this identification.s At
the time of the portrait, c. 1490, Cecilia was only seventeen, and she later
describes herself as imperfcta, or immature.fi And she was, perhaps, also
pregnant.’ Cecilia gave birth to Lodovico’s son, a boy whom they named
Cesare, in May of 1491. However, by this time, Cecilia was ensconced in a
nearby estate, granted to her by Lodovico. The reason for her departure was
obvious: in January of that year Lodovico kept his long-standing promise to
wed Beatrice d’Este, the daughter of the duke of Ferrara, in a political match
designed to link their respective city-states. Lodovico continued his relations See Jan Boloz-Antoniewicz, ‘Portret Cecylii Callerani przez Lionarda da Vinci w Muzeum k s i a t
Czartoryskich w Krakowie’, Pamiqfnih 111 Z j d u Hislorykdw PoLskich w Kmhowie, 4 (1900), 4; Janice Shell and
Crazioso Sironi, ‘Cecilia Gallerani: kondrdo’s Lady wilh an Ermine’, Arfi6u.s et hislmiae, 25 (1992), 47-66
J a y Shell, ‘Cecilia Gallerani: una biografia’, in Fdbjan and Marani, Leunardo, 51-65.
For this letter, see Adolfo Venturi, ‘Nuovi documenti su Leonardo da Vinci’. Azhiuio Sforico dell’Arte, 1
(1888), 45; Alessandro Luzio, ‘Ancora Leonardo da Vinci e lsabella d’Este’, Anhiuio Storico dcll’Arfe, 1 (1888),
181; for a modern transcription, see Shell, ‘Cecilia Gallerani’, 56.
In November 1490, Giacomo Trotti, Ferrara’s ambassador to the Sforza court, suggested that Lodovico’s
reluctance to marry Beatrice dEste was due to the fact that he already had a beautiful, and pregnant, lover; see
Francesco Malaguzzi-Valeri, La Cork di Lodouico il Mom (Milan, 1913), I, 503-04; Shell and Sironi, ‘Cecilia
Gallerani’,57.
174
Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
ship with Cecilia for some time after his marriage, acknowledged Cesare as
his son, and provided for his care (even granting the young boy a palazzo in
Milan).’ But eventually the necessity for keeping good political ties to the Este
must have resulted in the end of their affair.
Art historians have long debated the meaning of the weasel in Cecilia’s
portrait. No other known painting from this period includes such an animal
in so prominent a position. With their powerful jaws, non-retractile claws,
and pungent anal scent glands, weasels would not have served as suitable pets
for court ladies.’ The animal should therefore be considered symbolically. As
early as 1907 Charles J. Holmes commented on the similarity between
Cecilia’s family name, Gallerani, and the ancient Greek word for generic cats
or weasels, galke ( y ~ h i ~This
) . weasel
~ ~
therefore served as a pun on her name,
a not uncommon conceit in Renaissance portraiture.” Cecilia’s weasel is
usually described as an ermine because of its white coat. Contrary to popular
belief, however, ermines are not the only weasel to sport a white coat in
colder climates; many species will do this, to blend in with their snowy
surroundings.” Nevertheless, as Emil Moller demonstrated in 1916, the white
ermine was a symbol of purity, chastity, and moderation, making it an
appropriate companion for the worthy Cecilia. Indeed, Moller linked the
painting to an allegorical drawing by Leonardo, illustrating an ermine submitting to a hunter instead of dirtying its pristine fur in an escape attempt.”
More recently, Carlo Pedretti observed that the king of Naples invested
Lodovico with the exclusive Order of the Ermine in 1486, and, following
Henryk Ochenkowski in 1919, he hypothesized that the drawing was
the model for a medal Leonardo designed for Lodovico to commemorate
this h o n o ~ r . ’Following
~
his investiture, Lodovico was sometimes called
For further information on Cecilia’s life following the birth of Cesare, see Shell and Sironi. ‘Cecilia
Gallerani’, 58.
However, the playful qualities of the marten as a pet were noted in Edward Topsell, The Hisfory of
Fourfm&d Beats and Snpents (London, 1608, repr. New York, 1967). 387. They could be domesticated for use
in hunting or gamekeepingactivities as well (ibid. 171, regarding the ferret). Topsell’s compendium was largely
an annotated and expanded translation of the influential Konrad Gesner, Hislorie Animlium (Zurich, 1551).
For further information on the relationship between the two texts, see Malcolm South (ed.), Topcell’sHirfoTies
o/ B e a h (Chicago, 1981). xi, and the introduction by Willy Ley in Topsell. The Histmy ofFourjimfed Beasts,
un aginated.
Charles J. Holmes in A. E. Hewett, ‘A newly discovered portrait by Ambrogio de Predis’. Burlingfon
Magazine, 10 (1907), 310. See also Paul Barolsky, ‘La Gallerani’s GalCe’, Sourcc. 12 (1992), 13-14.
‘I Other examples like this would include Pisanello’s portrait of Gievra dEste and Leonardo’s of Ginevra
de’ Benci – both with sprigs ofjuniper (ginepm) – Giorgione’s Laura with the laurel bush in the background,
and a portrait of Lucina Brembati by Lorenzo Lotto (Fig. 2) with a moon (luna)and the letters ‘ci’ in the top
corner. I will refer to the Lotto portrait again later in this essay.
” For information on the seasonal coat ofweasels, see King, Nalurnl Hirfory, 29-42. This is contrary to Shell
and Sironi, ‘Cecilia Gallerani’,note 29.
Emil Moller. ‘LeonardosBildnis der Cecilia Gallerani in der Galerie des Fursten Czartoryski in Krakau‘,
Monahhtjl&ftir Kunsfwisscnschofl,9 (1916). 313-26. MBUer, and later authors, cite the description of the ermine
in the Fim di Virfir; see The Frmnfine FioT di Virfd of 1491, trans. Nicholas Fersin [sic] (Philadelphia, 1953),
108-9. For an analysis of this text, and Leonardo’s relationship to it, see Barbara Fabjan, ‘In margine
all’ermellino’. in Fabjan and Marani, Leonanfo, 73-5.
l4 Carlo Pedretti, ‘Ladama con I’ermellino come allegoria politica’. in Studi Politici in Onore di Luigi Fir@,
’’
Weasels and pregnancy in Renaissance Italy
175
Fig. 2 Lorenzo Lotto, Lucina Bmnbafi. c. 1518. Accademia Carrara di Belle Arte, Bergamo (Erich Lessing/Art
Resource, New York)
“L’Ermellino”(the little ermine), which may make this painting, in effect, a
double portrait.I5
Leonardo’s clever play on Cecilia’s name, the virtues of the white-coated
ermine, and its connection to Lodovico should not be surprising. But these
are not the only meanings behind this painting; as Krystyna Moczulska has
ed. A. Enzo Baldini and Franco Barcia (Milan, 1990). I. 161-81, esp. 167; Henryk Ochenkowski, ‘The
quatercentenary of Leonardo da Vinci 1. The Lady wifh the Ennine: a composition by Leonard0 da Vinci‘.
Rurlinglon Magazine, 24 (1919). 186-94. Information on the investiture can be found in Agata Rona,
‘L‘investitura di Lodovico il Moro dell’ordine dell’ArmeUino’,Archiuio Storico Lombanfo, 103 (1979). 346-58.
l5 Ochenkowski, “Quatercentenary of Leonardo da Vinci‘, 191.
176
Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
pointed out, there is evidence that weasels were connected with pregnancy
and childbirth during this time, and this should be considered when
examining Leonardo’s painting.I6Although Cecilia’s portrait seems to be the
only one with a living weasel, these animals appear dead – as fur pelts – in a
significant number of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works of art, as personal accessories for ladies of wealth and social standing.” These images have
an often startling specificity, and the limp body of the lifeless animal plays a
prominent role in each (Fig. 2).
Following the lead of John Hunt, some scholars have identified these pelts
as flea-catchers,worn to draw vermin away from the body.” But there are no
known references to this particular function in contemporary texts.” And
even if they were used in this manner on occasion, there should be a more
appealing reason for their inclusion in so very many paintings. It is unlikely to
be warmth, since the pelts are singular, and therefore too small to take away
any chill.20The financial outlay they required was significant, lending further
credence to the idea that they were more than just somewhat extravagant but
utilitarian flea-catchers. Furthermore, surviving objects and documentary
evidence indicate that a significant number of these pelts were outfitted with
special metal or glass heads, adorned with costly gems or enamel (Fig. 3).lL’
l6 Krystyna Moczulska, ”The most graceful Gallerani and the most exquisite yd;y in the portrait of
Leonard0 da Vinci’, Folia Hisloriac Arfium, 1 (1995),77-86. Moczulska’s analysis of the painting, though
influential to my own interpretation, does not take into account the larger pro-natalist context of post-plague
Italy; instead, she discusses the connections between Leonardo’s representation and literary texts.
I’ These fun were common enough in Bologna to generate sumptuary laws restricting their usage; see
Paola Goretti, ‘Levariazioni d e b moda femminilenella pittura Bolognese del cinquecento’,Ph.D dissertation,
Univenith degli Studi di Bologna (Bologna, 1994), esp. 13-14; I am grateful to Caroline Murphy for this
reference. For Italian representations of fur pelts see, among others, Parmigianino, Antea (Galleria Nazionale,
Naples); Lorenzo Lotto, Lucina Bretnbofi (Academia Carrara, Bergamo); Brescian, Lady (Kunsthiistorischen
Museum, Vienna); Bernardino Luini, Lady (National Gallery, Washington, DC); Francesco Beccaruzzi, Lady
(Accademia Carrara, Bergamo); Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, Family Porfmil (Fine Arts Museums of San
Francisco); and Cristoforo Solari, Funemry EDFsy ojBeafrice d%fe (Certosa, Pavia)
John Hunt, Jewelled neck fun and “Flohpelze”’,Panfheon, 21 (1963),151-57;see also R. H. Randall,Jr,
‘A manneristjewel’,Apollo, 87 (1968),176-8; Francis Weiss, ‘Bejewelledfur tippets – and the Palatine fashion’,
Cosfume,4 (1970),37-41;Giinter Schiedlausky, ‘Zum sogenannten Flohpelz’, Pantheon, 30 (1972),469-80;
Georges Salmann, ‘Une bonbonnihe qui n’en Ctait pas une’, ConnaLance des Arts, 21 (1975),90-1;Giinter
Schiedlausky. ‘Wie man Flohe fhgt’, Kunsf &?Anfiquilah, 4 (1987),26-38.
Although Frick cites this function, she does not include a contemporary term for it in her extensive
glossary; see Frick. W i n g , 430-1.
Several small pelts could be sewn together for warmth and, no doubt, for status. For example, in 1589
Alvise Cucina wrote a letter asking his agent in Constantinople to find three lengths of marten pelt to line a
vest for his son (ASV, Miscelhena Gregolin, b.12 teno, lettere commerciali 1563-1625,19 April 1589;I am
grateful to Blake de Maria for sharing this document with me). When used in this way, weasel pelts lost the
lifelike qualities and, quite likely, the symbolism they had when represented as pelts in female portraits.
Italian paintings and drawings with these accessories include: Lavinia Fontana, The Meeting of Solomon and
Sheba (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and Noblewarnan (National Museum of Women in the Arts,
Washington, DC); Titian, Eleanora Gonurga (Uffui, Florence) and La Eella (Pitti, Florence); Parmigianino,
Camilla Gonwga and Three Sons (Museo del Prado, Madrid); Bartolomeo Passerotti,Lady (two versions, one in
the Piero Corsini Gallery, New York,and the other location unknown); Paolo Veronese, Counfm Liuia da Porfo
Thiene and her Daughter Ponia (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore);Giovanni Francesco Bezzi, Thysfes and Anopc
(art market); Giovanni Battista Moroni. Isoffa Brembafi (Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo); Sofonisba Anguissola,
Porfraif ofa Lady (StaatlicheMuseen, Berlin) and Isabel ofvalok (known via a copy in Museo del Prado, Madrid);
*’
Weasels and pregnancy in Renaissance Italy
177
They joined the pelt at a jewelled collar, and then hung from the girdle by a
chain attached to a ring in the animal’s mouth. Unfortunately, however, few
of these heads have survived through the intervening centuries.YP
The repeated appearance of these animals, alive or dead, alert or stuffed,
with or without a special head, seems intimately connected to lifecycle events
like marriage and childbirth, especially among members of the upper class,
for whom heirs were especially critical. To demonstrate this, it is important to
go beyond Moczulska’s careful examination of the literary history of the
weasel, to understand the impetus behind the use of objects to aid pregnancy
and childbirth. Renaissance society placed great emphasis on the family and
its perpetuation, but reproduction was a risky venture. Regardless of social
standing, a significant percentage of young women died during pregnancy
and childbirth, often accompanied by their newborns.?’ An awareness of this
danger, and a related interest in commemoration, was vital in this context.*’
In addition to the risks associated with pregnancy and birth, we need to
consider the devastating consequences of the plague of 1348 and its recurring outbreaks over the next two centuries. Modern demographers
estimate the losses at between one-third and one-half of the European
population, with no significant recovery until the late sixteenth century.’$
This demographic crisis focused attention on childbirth, risky as it was, to
recover decimated families and cities.26This ideology was manifested in
contemporary social interaction, politics, economics, and, in a particularly
telling manner, in art. Although Millard Meiss and others have examined the
influence of the plague on sacred, monumental art,’7 domestic art was also
affected; in fact, it seems that the recurring epidemics inspired a wide variety
of objects to encourage and reward childbirth and decorate the mother, the
child, and the bedroom for the occasion.
Special furniture, linens, and clothing for the mother and child were
employed, as were natural remedies, charms, texts, and images, all in an
Niclausz Keppel, Lady o f C m o n a and Lady ojBologna, from a costume book (Wallers Art Museum, Baltimore);
and Giulio Romano, two drawings of weasel head accessories (MusCe des Beaux-Arts et dArcheologie,
Besancon, and art market).
Examples are in Baltimore (Walten Art Museum), Paris (Musee de Cluny), Nurnberg (Germanisches
National Museum), Madrid (Museo Lazaro and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), and formerly the
Rothschild collection. See also Yvonne Hackenbroch, Renaissance Jewel& (New York, 1979). 29-30, for a
discussion of several documentary and visual examples.
For statistics from the fifteenth century, see David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and
their Families: a Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven, 1985), 270-9.
24 For example, some women deliberately wrote their wills before their due date; see Stanley Chojnacki.
‘Dowries and kinsmen in early Renaissance Venice’,Journal of Inlerdisciplinuty Histoy, 5 (1975), 587. Such an
impulse may have prompted the portraits of the unidentified pregnant woman by Raphael (Palazzo Pitti,
Florence) or the newborn by Lavinia Fontana (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna).
” For the plague in general, see Jean-N&l Biraben, Les Hommes el la Peste en Fmnce el dam les Pays Eumpdms
el Meditmanies (Paris, 1975-6). as well as David Herlihy, The Black Death and the Transfurmation ofthe Wesf.ed.
Samuel K.Cohn,Jr (Cambridge, 1997).
I discuss this in further detail in my book, The Art and Ritwl of Childbirth in Renairtance Italy (New Haven,
1999).
27 Millard Meiss, Painting in Flonxce and Siena a/er the Black Death (Princeton, 1951).
‘*

178
Jacqueline Marie Musacchio
Fig. 3 Paolo Veronese, Counlm LUCMda Port0 Thiene with her Daughtn, Ponia, 1555. The Walters Art Museum,
Baltimore
Weasels and pregnancy in Renaissance Italy
179
effort to gain favour from forces otherwise beyond the control of most
parents. But the most popular objects, beginning in the late fourteenth century, were wooden trays or bowls painted with festive scenes of confinement
or appropriate mythological, religious, or literary narratives. During the
sixteenth century, these wooden objects were gradually replaced by maiolica
wares, painted with similar imagery. Both emphasized the celebratory nature
of childbirth, and the imagery on them was closely connected to familial
ideals. Furthermore, the backs and undersides of these trays and bowls were
often painted with naked, cavorting boys, using the power of the maternal
imagination to achieve …
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