This small painting depicts a side profile portrait of a lady. The young lady is wearing precious jewelry and a head piece with pearls, matching the ones on her necklace. She is wearing an embroidered dress with a red velvet bodice. Her hair is collected, and a strand of hair passes under her chin, which was the trend in the end of the 15th century Milan (such as in the Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci).
The painting is translucent and compact, and the lady’s face is caressed by soft and strongly three-dimensional light. A recent cleaning revealed the splendor of the pearls made with determined brushstrokes, whereas the examinations with infrared lights have revealed a subtle and refined design concentrated especially in the face area.
The painting entered Federico Borromeo’s collections between 1607 and 1611 and it was donated to Ambrosiana in 1618 as a “Portrait of a Duchess of Milan up from the middle, by the hand of Leonardo, nine ounces high, and half an arm wide, with black frames”.
Already in 1685 an important modification on the inventory changes the attribution from “Leonardo” to “School of Leonardo”, starting the endless debate regarding the attribution, concerning also the real identity of the subject.
Starting from the 19th century she was identified as Cecilia Gallerani, lover of Ludovico il Moro, or Bianca Maria Sforza, the daughter of the duke, and the attribution of the work was given to Ambrogio De Predis instead of Leonardo. Longhi and Volpe suggested a painter from the Emilia area, such as Lorenzo Costa or Francesco Francia.
Regarding the question, a convincing answer is yet to be found and the research continues.
Beltrami L., Il ritratto di Beatrice d’Este di Leonardo da Vinci alla Biblioteca Ambrosiana di Milano, Milano 1905;
Venturi A., Storia dell’arte italiana. La pittura del Cinquecento, vol. VII, parte IV, Milano 1915, pp. 1020-1021;
Schiapparelli A., Leonardo ritrattista, Milano 1921, pp. 55-93;
Longhi R., Ampliamento nell’Officina ferrarese, Firenze 1940, pp. 17-18;
Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissence, I eII, London 1968, p. 108;
Pedretti C., La “Femme echevellee” de Leonard de Vinci, in “Revue de l’Art”, 25, 1974, pp. 24-34;
Bora G., Due tavole leonardesche. Nuove indagini sul Musico e sul San Giovanni dell’Ambrosiana, Vicenza 1987, p.8;
Marani P.C., in I Leonardeschi. L’eredità di Leonardo in Lombardia, Milano 1998, pp. 25-27;
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.
It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.
In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.
The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.
The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.
Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.
There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).
A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.
After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.
During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.