- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WARSAW, POLAND (AP) - It’s finally been decided: Poland’s most precious painting, “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, will be allowed to travel to Spain, Germany and Britain.

Wednesday’s decision came after almost a year of discussion by art experts and Poland’s Culture Ministry about whether the 15th-century masterpiece should be allowed to leave the country.

Last week, art conservationists warned the Renaissance masterpiece of a graceful female figure could be damaged in transit. The chief expert at the National Museum in Krakow, Janusz Czop, said at the time that taking it on foreign trips would expose it to “great risk.”

But Deputy Culture Minister Piotr Zuchowski said Wednesday the government decided the masterpiece can travel. It will now be shown at three foreign sites for three months each: Madrid’s Palacio Real starting in May, Berlin’s Gemaeldegalerie, starting in August and London’s National Gallery, starting in November.

In February it will return to Krakow, where it has been for more than 100 years, and where it will be submitted to detailed examination of its condition. It will remain in Krakow at least until 2022.

“With this decision, we are taking joint responsibility for the future of this work of art,” Zuchowski said.

The owners of the painting, a private family foundation that has been lobbying for it to be put on temporary display outside the country, expressed satisfaction with the ministry’s decision.

“We are happy that reason prevailed,” said Maria Osterwa-Czekaj, deputy head of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation.

She said her foundation will earn “thousands of euros” with the foreign exhibitions for the needs of the Krakow museum it runs, but would not disclose the exact amount. The Krakow museum, where the painting usually hangs, is undergoing modernization and the portrait most recently has been on exhibit at Warsaw’s Royal Castle.

One of only four existing female portraits by Leonardo, the oil painting shows a young woman in three-quarter profile wearing a sumptuous low-cut red and blue dress as she holds a white ermine. Historians believe the subject was Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, when she was 16 or 17. Da Vinci painted it around the year 1490.

Osterwa-Czekaj said the foundation believes it is important to make the painting available for the general public and art historians at the Berlin exhibition, which will feature masterpieces of Renaissance portrait painting, and at the London event, to be dedicated solely to Leonardo da Vinci.

In Madrid, it will help represent Poland’s culture abroad, at a time when Poland will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union, which starts July 1.

Osterwa-Czekaj argued that the state-of-the-art methods of transportation of works of art made it safe for the painting to be moved. Other works by da Vinci will travel to the London exhibition from the Vatican and the Louvre.

Between 1991 and 2004, “Lady with an Ermine” traveled to exhibitions in the U.S., Sweden, Italy and Japan.

The painting has belonged to the Czartoryski family since the early 19th century.

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