A brief digression now: a sidebar in my discussion of weasels in Vermont.
Consider the painting above and the two splendid subjects it portrays—one a paragon of the species Homo sapiens, the other of Mustela erminia.
At some point around 1490, Leonardo da Vinci painted this portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a young Milanese noblewoman. Cecilia was fifteen or sixteen years old when she sat for Leonardo. Hailing from a family affiliated with Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Cecilia was Sforza’s mistress. She may have been pregnant at the time of her sitting for this portrait; in May of 1491, the Duke acknowledged that Cecilia had borne his son. The ermine she holds is symbolically resonant in terms of her relationship with the duke: first, because the Sforza family crest included an ermine among its heraldic elements; and second, because during the Italian Renaissance, the weasel was associated with pregnancy.
In any case, “Lady with an Ermine” is a remarkable portrait, as beautiful in its own way as Leonardo’s painting of Lisa Gherardini, the subject of “La Gioconda,” the Mona Lisa, and as serene and enigmatic.
And the ermine? His or her name has been lost in the mists of time. All we know is that Cecilia had to settle for being Leonardo’s second-most famous model, while the critter in her arms goes down to posterity as the most famous weasel in history.