This portrait, known as La belle ferronnière or Portrait of an Unknown Woman, does not represent, as is commonly believed, the mistress of Francis I, but Lucrezia Crivelli, beloved of Ludovico Sforza Duke of Mantua.
This young woman posing on three quarters turns her head almost from the face. You can see only the top of his bust emerging behind a window railing. The hair, very exactly divided into bands on the top of the head, is applied on the temples, bordering the eyes and rising towards the ears which they entirely conceal: on this smooth hair is posed, like a thin tiara, a closed chain of gold, in the middle of the forehead, by one of those cabochons that were called, and still it is, a ferronniere, ironworker. Hence the name under which this painting is known. The face is of a slightly rounded oval; the features, regular, are of a beauty that can not diminish the disgraceful arrangement of the hairstyle. The whole of this woman has something robust and energetic. The neck is surrounded by a necklace with three rows of pearls: although of a very pure line, it has more vigor than finesse; it is not the frayed collar of the Florentine patricians of Botticelli. The drooping shoulders and the developed chest lock themselves into a red velvet bodice open in square, and adorned with the shoulders of punctures held by ribbons.
In this figure, as in all those of Vinci, there is something enigmatic and disturbing. Examine those searching and profound eyes, which recall those of the Mona Lisa: what mysterious thoughts are hidden behind this look, what secrets enclose these thin lips, tightly closed? This woman is a woman of the Renaissance: she lives in a strange time, both civilized and barbarous, where the intrigues are often unraveled by poison, where the loves end with the dagger. She is the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, a magnificent but violent prince, whose tenderness is as dangerous as anger and who governs his states by terror. And it is fear that can be read in Lucrezia Crivelli’s wide-open eyes, as if waiting for the disgrace of his terrible master. On this point, the enigma remains whole; what we know about this woman can not help us to decipher her, but the painter’s genius has magnificently translated the anxiety of this look revealed under the apparent calm of the attitude.
Is it necessary to insist on the beauty of this work? Speaking of Vinci, what words can you find to express the admiration it evokes? No painter has pushed so far the art of animating a figure and charging it with thoughts; he has the miraculous gift of bringing the soul in his eyes and it seems that we will hear the character speak.
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most astonishing artists whose history has given us the name, along with one of the greatest minds in the world. As a painter he occupies the same place as kings above their subjects; he dominates the art of all ages, like a Jupiter in the Empyrean. Michelangelo and Raphael, these two astonishing geniuses, are only princes in this court of which he is the sovereign. As intelligence, it is universal.
Raffaëlli, in his Promenades of an artist in the Louvre Museum, writes on Leonardo da Vinci this page: “Great, handsome, elegant, pretty figure, practicing all the sports, all the exercises of the body, consumed musician, improviser, singer endowed with a beautiful voice and capable of accompanying himself on the lyre, and building, if necessary, a lute of silver of all parts: great organizer of festivals, painter, sculptor, engineer, writer, esthete, scientist in all things, mechanic, inventor of a flying machine, of circular saw, automatic parts, etc.”
The author of the Mona Lisa preceded many men of science in their research, and found the theory of Copernicus on the motion of the earth, the classification of Lamarck in vertebrates and invertebrates, the laws of friction, respiration, gravitation, the waves of light and heat, the use of steam as a driving force in navigation, the airplanes, the dark chamber, the magnetic attraction, the barrel loading by the breech, etc.
It was at the court of Ludovico Sforza that he painted around 1496, the portrait of Lucrezia Crivelli, next to the Duchess Beatrice d’Este, whose duke had fallen in love. Lucrezia succeeded, in the favors of the prince, to Cecilia Gallerani, a woman famous for her beauty, and whom the Duke had to remove on the complaint of his outraged wife, the Duchess Beatrice. The story does not tell if she was more thrilled to see her own maid of honor rise to the rank of favorite. In any case the connection was not long. Ludovic had to put himself at the head of his troops to fight the French, whom he had called to Italy, and then betrayed. Defeated at Novara, he was taken prisoner and shut up in the castle of Loches, where he died (1510).
This magnificent painting, bought by Louis XIV, appears in the Grande Galerie, at the bay of the Italian painters.
Height: 0.62 – Width: 0.44 – Figure in full-size bust.