Excerpt From The Night Portrait: A Novel of WWII & da Vinci’s Italy by Laura Morelli

Our friend Laura Morelli is a Yale-educated art historian and historical novelist. Her latest book, The Night Portrait: A Novel of WWII & da Vinci’s Italy—based on the centuries-long saga of Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine—was released September 8th. She also wrote a fantastic article, The Women of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Portraits, which appeared in our August/September 2020 issue along with more information about The Night Portrait. You can purchase the book here but first an excerpt:

Florence, Italy, February 1476

A dark shaft in the hillside. In my mind, I see it.

Down the long passage, a forgotten recess beneath the city’s fortifications, I watch men loading charges of black powder.

The best laborers for this task, I think, mine coal by day. These men are used to toiling in the thin air, in the darkness, with the careful use of the torch and the pick. Their fingers and cheeks are permanently black, their breeches stiff with soil and char. For them, what better occupation than in the service of siege?

They are brave, I think, to advance in the darkness, their lights held high. Quietly, unsuspected, they unload black grit into the farthest recesses of the shaft. When they emerge, the cannoneer turns the wheel noiselessly on its cogs, moving the machine forward into the mine. Citizens scatter amid the chaos and explosions of spewing rocks. The enemy is soon in the attacker’s clutches.

The design lives only in my imagination, of course. I must admit that. Still, I am compelled to put it to paper. These thoughts, these machines. They keep me awake long past the hour when the sun turns the Arno to gold and then sinks behind the hills. These contraptions fill my dreams. I awake in a sweat, desperate to trap the images on paper before they dissipate like first morning fog on the river’s surface.

The fact is that I am surrounded by my old room, with its smoldering fire in the hearth, with precarious stacks of parchment sheaves on the table, with inkwells and their metallic fragrance, with oil lamps and their charred wicks, with an ever-shifting arrangement of lounging cats. I have secured the iron latch on my door to deter those so-called friends who might lure me to the taverns. They can have it all.

I have more important tasks at hand. If I don’t capture them between the pages of my notebooks, they flit away like colorful moths just beyond the reach of my net.

Never mind that troublesome distraction of the panel on my easel. There lies my improficient attempt to capture the likeness of a merchant’s homely daughter. But she glares at me from across the room. Dissatisfied, as she has every right to be. Her father has asked me to make her beautiful before he sends the portrait to a suitor in Umbria. My heart is not in it, if I am honest with myself, but I cannot argue with the remuneration. It keeps bread and wine on my table. Still, the tempera pigments on my poplar plank have long dried hard. I pull the drape over the portrait so that the girl’s reproving gaze will no longer distract me. I am anxious to turn back to my drawing. If only I could convince a patron to pay me for my war machines instead of replicating his daughter’s profile.

Then there are my own parts of my master’s unfinished works. An angel and a landscape for a baptism of Christ. The monks have been pestering Master Verrocchio for months. A Madonna and child—uninspired, if I am honest with myself—for a noble lady near Santa Maria Novella. She has written me another letter asking when it will be delivered.

How can I afford these distractions when there is so much for me to capture from my own imagination? I turn back to my notebooks.

Why the tunnels? They will ask me, these men who think as much of war as I. But I have already thought of that. How the enemy might be surprised when their attackers emerge from the earth to overcome them! They will see that the shaft driving the machine allows it to turn seamlessly, effortlessly, into the tortuous shafts below ground, without making a sound. And when these mines are not being exploded, what treasures might be hidden there from those who might steal them, deep in the underground reserves where there is copper, coal, and salt?

We must keep our enemies close. Or so they say.

But what do I know? I am only one who imagines such fantasies and puts them to paper. One who believes that sometimes, art must be put in the service of war.

I pick up my silverpoint pen and begin to draw again.

Munich, September 1939

Edith Becker hoped that the men around the table could not see her hands tremble.

On any other Thursday, Edith would be sitting before an easel in her ground-level conservation studio, wearing the magnifying goggles that made her look like a giant insect. There, in the quiet, she would lose all track of time, absorbed in the task of repairing a tear in a centuries-old painting, removing grime built up over decades, or regilding an old, crumbling frame. Her job was saving works of art, one by one, from decay and destruction. It was her training, her calling. Her life’s work.

But for the last half hour, the eyes of the most important men of the Alte Pinakothek, one of Munich’s greatest museums, had been on Edith. They watched her unwind the straps from each binder and remove folios one by one, each one representing paintings in the private collections of families across Poland.

“The identity of the man in the portrait is unknown,” Edith said, passing around a facsimile of a portrait by the Italian Renaissance painter, Raffaello Sanzio. Edith watched their eyes scan the likeness of a fluffy-haired man looking askance at the viewer, drawing a fur cloak over one shoulder.

Edith was glad she had traded her usual faded gray dress and conservator’s smock for the smartest outfit she owned, a brown tweed skirt and jacket. She had taken the time to make sure her hair curled evenly on either side of her jawline, and the seams up the back of her stockings ran straight. The men gave her their undivided attention: the curator of antiquities, the museum board chairman, even the museum director himself, Ernst Buchner, a renowned scholar to whom Edith had never spoken directly before today.

“There have been several ideas about the identity of the sitter,” she said. “Some even believe it may be the artist’s self-portrait.”

Edith was the only woman in a room full of the museum’s executive staff. She wished they hadn’t asked her to abandon the peace of her conservation studio, where, for the last few weeks, she had been working to restore a large battle scene by the sixteenth-century Munich artist Hans Werl. At some point in the 1800s, another conservator had overpainted the human figures and horses in the picture. Now, working at a painstakingly slow pace, Edith was removing the overpaint with a small piece of linen soaked in solvent. She was excited to see the brilliant pigments that the artist had originally intended emerge from the canvas, one centimeter at a time. She wished they would let her get back to work instead of placing her at the center of attention.

Her eyes moved nervously around the table and finally landed on Manfred, a longtime colleague and museum registrar. Manfred peered at Edith over his small, round glasses and smiled, giving her the courage to continue. He may have been the only one in the room who understood how challenging it was for Edith to speak in front of the group.

Manfred, Edith realized, was also the only one of her coworkers who knew something of her life outside the museum. He understood the difficulty she faced in caring for her father, whose mind and memory had deteriorated, day by day. Manfred and her father had been classmates at the Academy of Fine Arts, and it was Manfred who had facilitated a position for Herr Becker’s diligent, studious daughter in the conservation department. Edith knew that if she was to keep her job, let alone find any success as a professional woman at all, she had to protect her personal life from the others. She clung to Manfred’s reassuring smile to help still her shaking hands.

“A masterpiece,” said the board chairman, handling the facsimile of the painting by Raffaello Sanzio with care. “I see that the Czartoryski family had an impressive ambition to collect Italian paintings.”

“Indeed.” Edith, too, had been surprised to learn of the treasures locked away in castles, monasteries, museums, and private homes in the lands to the east. There were vast family collections, amassed over centuries, across the Polish border. Prince Czartoryski’s family art collection alone served as a quiet repository of incalculable value.

And now, Edith was beginning to understand the point of all the hours, days, and weeks she had spent in the museum archives and library stacks. She had been instructed to pull together this research on paintings in Polish collections for the museum board. She didn’t know why it hadn’t become obvious before now. Someone wanted to procure these pictures. Who and why?

“And this is the last one,” she said, pulling the final folio from the stack of images from the Czartoryski collection.

“The one we’ve been waiting for,” said Herr Direktor Buchner, whose brows reached for the dark, wispy hair swept back from his high forehead.

“Yes,” Edith said. “Around 1800, at the same time that Adam Jerzy Czartoryski purchased Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man from an Italian family, he also bought Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. He brought these paintings from Italy back home to his family collection in eastern Poland.”

“And it remains there?” the antiquities curator asked, suspending his pen in midair as if it were a cigarette. The curator’s old habit hearkened back to the time before the recent ban on smoking in government buildings; just months ago, Edith realized, the room would have been filled with smoke.

“No,” Edith said, relieved that she had reviewed her notes before the meeting. “The Lady with an Ermine portrait has traveled often over the last hundred years. In the 1830s, during the Russian invasion, the family took it to Dresden for safekeeping. Afterward, they returned it to Poland but things were still unstable, so they moved the painting to a hiding place in the family palace in Pełkinie. When things calmed down, the family moved it to their private apartments in Paris; that would have been in the 1840s.”

“And then it returned to Poland?”

“Eventually, yes,” said Edith. “The family brought it back to Poland in the 1880s. It was put on public display then, to great fanfare. That’s where many people first learned of the painting, and when historians began researching it. Several experts identified it right away as by the hand of da Vinci, and people speculated about the identity of the sitter. That’s how it ended up”—she gestured to her stack of folios—“widely published and reproduced.”

“Who is she?” asked Buchner, tapping his fat fingers on the tabletop.

“It is well accepted that she was one of the mistresses of the Duke of Milan, a girl named Cecilia Gallerani, who came from a Sienese family. She was probably about sixteen years old at the time that Ludovico Sforza asked da Vinci to paint her.” Edith watched the facsimile of the painting circulate from hand to hand around the table again. The men pored over the girl’s face, her bright expression, the white, furry creature in her arms.

“During the Great War, the painting came to Germany again,” Edith continued. “It was held for safekeeping in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, but it was ultimately returned to Kraków.”

“It is remarkable that the painting survived at all, given how often it circulated,” Manfred noted.

Indeed,” said Herr Direktor Buchner, handing the facsimile back to Edith. She returned it to her thick binder and began to retie the straps. “Fräulein Becker, you are to be commended for your thorough background research in the service of this project.”

“A senior curator could not have done a better job,” the decorative arts curator added.

Danke schön.” Edith finally exhaled. She hoped they would let her return to the conservation studio now. She looked forward to putting on her smock and starting on the stabilization of a French painting whose frame had been water damaged when it was placed in an unfortunate position under a plumbing pipe in a storage closet.

Generaldirektor Buchner stood. “Now,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I have an announcement. In recent days, I have had a personal visit from Reichsmarschall Göring, who, as you may know, has been engaged by our Führer in the search for masterpieces like the ones we have seen here this afternoon. There is to be a new museum constructed in Linz. It has been fully funded by our Supreme Commander, who, as you know, has a personal interest in great art and its preservation. The museum in Linz, once it is complete, will be a repository for the safekeeping of all important works of art”—he paused to look around the table—“in the world.”

There was a collective gasp. Edith let the idea sink in. Adolf Hitler had already opened the House of German Art, just a short walk away from her office. She and Manfred had gone to see the work of the officially approved contemporary sculptors and painters. But now . . . Every important work of art history in the entire world under one roof, all of it under the stewardship of the Reich. It was difficult—almost inconceivable—to envision.

“As you might imagine,” Buchner said, giving life to Edith’s thoughts, “this new vision of ourhrer will be a massive undertaking. All of us in the art-related trades are being engaged as custodians in the service of safeguarding these works. As things become more . . . precarious . . . we must all do our parts toward this effort.”

“But that’s insanity!” the antiquities curator huffed out. “All the important works of art in the world? Germany will control the world’s cultural patrimony? Who are we to be custodians of such a legacy? And who are we to take them from their current places?”

From THE NIGHT PORTRAIT by Laura Morelli, published by William Morrow Paperbacks. Copyright © 2020 by Laura Morelli. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers.