Cecilia Gallerani (1473-1536) was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, and the mother of his son Cesare, who was born on 3rd May 1491. In 1492 she married Ludovico Carminati.
The animal cradled in Cecilia’s arms is an Ermine, which was a symbol of virtue and purity. It may also be a play on Cecilia’s name, as the Greek word for ermine is galée, and a reference to Ludovico Sforza, who was appointed a member of the Order of the Ermine by Ferdinand I of Naples in 1488.
The painting is described in a sonnet published in 1493, composed by the court poet Bernardo Bellincioni, who died in 1492. It is also mentioned in a letter from Isabella d’Este to Cecilia, in which she asks to borrow the portrait in order to compare it with a work by Giovanni Bellini, who was the most famous Venetian painter at that time.
Scientific examination of the painting has revealed the remains of spolvere in the outlines of the figure and the head, which confirm the use of a cartoon - a full-scale drawing, the design of which was transferred to the panel by a process of pricked outlines pounced with charcoal dust. Furthermore, traces of direct under-drawing were found on the panel in areas of the hands, right arm, bridge of the nose and the hairline, suggesting that Leonardo made adjustments to elements of the composition after the drawn design had been transferred.
Fingerprints, commonly found in Leonardo’s paintings from this period have also been identified on Cecilia’s face and on the head of the ermine. The background appears to have been repainted and may originally have been painted grey-blue by Leonardo.