A Tale of Two Mistresses

Madame the Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, by Jean-Marc Nattier

For much of European history, kings and leading noblemen maintained an official mistress at court. Known as the maîtresse-en-titre, such ladies were officially recognized as the king’s lover and could often wield considerable influence. If they gave birth as a result of their liaisons, their children were usually raised as aristocrats in their own right. Thus, King Charles VII had Agnès Sorel, who bore him three children; and Henry II had the redoubtable Diane de Poitiers. During his long reign — more than 50 years — King Louis XV maintained no less than 14 official mistresses, including the famous Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour. In the 19th century, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria pursued a fateful liaison with Mary Vetsera, with whom he committed suicide at Mayerling. And in our modern times, Prince Charles continued to date Camilla, even though he was married to Princess Diana.

The reason for this custom was actually quite simple. Dynastic marriages were not a matter of love, but of policy. Royals were often engaged to their future spouses while they were still children or even toddlers, purely for political or strategic reasons. Love could sometimes follow — Russian Czar Nicholas II was famously in love with his German-born wife, Alix of Hesse — but such was the exception, rather than the rule. If it was romance one wanted, the more obvious venue was to pursue a liaison with one or several young ladies at court.

Duke Ludovico Sforza, the usurper-ruler of the Duchy of Milan, was also a man with a healthy interest in the fair sex. In 1487, a young girl, barely 14 years old, had caught his eye. Her name was Cecilia Gallerani, and as it happened, she was already betrothed to a prominent young nobleman named Giovanni Stefano Visconti. This was the custom in those days; girls were prepared for their nuptials as soon as their menses started. But in Cecilia’s case, the need to get married was urgent. Her father, the Milanese ambassador to Florence, had died when she was seven, leaving most of his inheritance in the hands of her six brothers. Marrying into the Visconti family, who despite their loss of power retained their wealth and political influence, would put an end to her financial problems.

Duke Ludovico, however, was not one to be dissuaded by such obstacles. He peremptorily annulled the marriage contract between Giovanni and young Cecilia, and took the girl to his own bed instead. A torrential affair ensued, even though Ludovico had problems of his own. He had just become engaged to a lady named Beatrice, daughter of one of Italy’s most renowned dynastic families, the House of d’Este. The marriage was calculated to elevate Ludovico’s prestige in Europe, and thus increase his chances of being recognized as the legitimate duke of Milan.

Under normal circumstances, this betrothal should not have prevented Ludovico from indulging in an affair with a lovely young commoner. But as Chris Brown and I describe in our book Young Leonardo, the situation then got rapidly out of hand. The reason was that Ludovico was anything but discreet. In fact, he had become so besotted with the girl that Ferrara’s ambassador in Milan, Jacopo Trotti, wrote home with the alarming news that the engagement with Beatrice might be in danger. “He is head over heels in love with her,” the ambassador wrote despairingly, referring to Cecila; “she is pregnant, and as beautiful as a flower, and he often takes me along when he wants to visit her.”

Leonardo da Vinci, “Lady with an Ermine,” (detail), ca. 1490.

Her pregnancy may, in fact, be the reason that Ludovico then asked Leonardo to paint a portrait of her. This was rather surprising, for as we argue in our book, Leonardo and Ludovico were not on the best of terms — certainly not after Leonardo did not succeed in creating the huge equestrian statue that the duke had commissioned from him. In fact, all of the official art commissions in Milan went to trusted painters from Lombardy. These artists were not particularly imaginative, but they delivered their work on time, and on budget. That is why Leonardo was certainly not Milan’s “celebrated court artist” that scores of books have maintained until now.

But the duke was probably familiar with Leonardo’s first major work in Milan, the Virgin of the Rocks, commissioned not by the ducal court but by a local religious order. And he, too, must have been impressed by the delicate grace of the youthful Mary in this painting. He must have realized that in capturing the beauty of a woman, Leonardo had no parallel.

The result is the famous Lady with an Ermine, now in Krakow — a revolutionary portrait that already anticipates the art of the High Renaissance. Set against a dark background so as to draw our attention to the delicate glazing of Cecilia’s flawless skin, the most striking feature of the portrait is the subject’s pose. It is the first example of Leonardo’s deep interest in the suggestion of movement — as if the sitter were caught in the midst of shifting her gaze, thus enhancing her natural poise and grace.

Unfortunately, the liaison between Cecilia and the duke was doomed. Even after he married Beatrice d’Este during a grand wedding, Ludovico continued to yearn for his young mistress, rather than the conjugal bed. Eventually, the long-suffering ambassador of Ferrara at the Milanese court revealed the reason in a letter to his master: Beatrice, a high-born princess of the same age as Cecilia, refused to sleep with the duke until he got rid of “that girl,” as a wife would put it nowadays. Threatened with a scandal and the loss of Ferrara’s support, on March 21 Ludovico finally sent Cecilia away. Two months later, the heart-broken girl gave birth to a son, Cesare Sforza Visconti.

Not before long, however, the duke’s roving eye caught another beauty at court. Her name was Lucrezia Crivelli, a lady-in-waiting to Beatrice. By 1495 she had succeeded Cecilia Gallerani as the duke’s maîtresse-en-titre, and this time, there was little that the duchess could do about it. Beatrice herself became pregnant, but this ended in tragedy: she died in childbirth on January 3, 1497. Just two months later, Lucrezia bore the duke a son; he was named Giovanni Paolo, the later Marquess of Caravaggio.

Leonardo da Vinci, “La belle Ferronière” (detail), ca. 1494

Lucrezia is very likely the sitter of Leonardo’s second portrait of this time, the work known as La Belle Ferronnière, now in the Louvre. The almost photographic realism of the portrait, achieved through a subtle chiaroscuro against the black limbo of the background, is a further development of the stunning optical effects in Lady with an Ermine.

Thus, a tale of two mistresses allowed Leonardo to create a breakthrough in secular portraiture, and one which would prepare him for his greatest masterpiece: the Last Supper fresco.