Louvre Leonardo da Vinci show beset by disputes — and mysteries | Arts | DW | 24.10.2019
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Louvre Leonardo da Vinci show beset by disputes — and mysteries

Marking the 500th anniversary of the death of the Renaissance master, the Louvre's blockbuster Leonardo exhibition is bound to draw masses of visitors. But organizers faced various problems bringing the works together.

BdTD Paris Mona Lisa nach Renovierung wieder ausgestellt (AFP/E. Feferberg)

Instead of joining the temporary exhibition, the 'Mona Lisa' will remain in its usual location at the Louvre

Experts attribute only 15 to 20 paintings to Leonardo da Vinci. But that manageable number of works was still a struggle for the Louvre's planned retrospective exhibition on the 500th anniversary of the genius' death. The Paris museum hoped to gather as many of the Renaissance master's paintings as possible for its exhibition held from October 24 to February 24, 2020, but it faced a number of rejections from other museums, as well as various political intrigues.

The Louvre holds the most important collection of Leonardo paintings in the world, owning five of his works as well as one from his workshop. These works are obviously included in the show — although the Mona Lisa will remain in the permanent exhibition of the museum.

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However, the organizers didn't manage to bring together the entire work of the Italian-born Renaissance painter, who lived from 1452 to 1519.

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence provided copies its own Leonardo works, and is lending originals of his drawings for the Paris exhibition. But the paintings The Baptism of Christ, The Annunciation and The Adoration of the Magi will remain in Tuscany.

The Ministries of Culture of Italy and France had managed to agree on a loan after some back and forth, but art historians and restorers later objected to lending the works, according to a Spiegel report. They feared that the journey and changes in humidity could damage the paintings.

In 2009, The Annunciation had already been included in a list of artworks that should never be moved from the museum, let alone leave the country. The Madonna of the Carnation from the Alte Pinakothek gallery in Munich is also kept in its permanent location for conservational reasons. Lady with an Ermine, which traveled around the world in the past, has been subject to a travel ban ever since the painting was acquired by the Polish state in 2016. It has since been displayed at Krakow's National Museum.

Gemälde | 'Madonna with a Flower', (Madonna Benois), 1478. Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/T. Camus)

Borrowed from the Hermitage Museum: the 'Benois Madonna' is now in Paris

The consequences of nationalism?

Competition among international museums — and the countries and regions where they are located — is huge. Museums increasingly tend to keep their own greatest treasures exclusive, knowing that they attract millions of visitors. The Washington Post commented on how resurgent nationalism is linked to restricting museums' willingness to make loans. "So a Leonardo exhibition without the major paintings is simply a sign of the times," it wrote.

Nevertheless, in addition to the paintings and 22 drawings from its own collection, the Louvre is showing nearly 120 works, including manuscripts, sculptures and works of art from the painter, sculptor, engineer, architect and philosopher. These come from the London National Gallery, the British Museum, the Vatican Art Gallery, the Italian National Gallery in Parma and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Vitruvian Man (Fotolia/Peter Hermes Furian)

Also known as 'The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius'

'Vitruvian Man' allowed to travel

The curators in Paris were able to include, at the last minute, Leonardo's perhaps most famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man, which was created around 1490. While Italy had previously agreed on a loan, Italia Nostra, a conservative cultural preservation organization, had tried to block it through a court battle, claiming that the work was too fragile to travel. A higher Italian court finally rejected the organization's appeal.

Fortunately, other paintings that only rarely travel abroad are part of the exhibition. The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg is lending Madonna Benois, and the Vatican is sending St. Jerome, an unfinished Leonardo painting.

Where is the Savior?

To top it all, the never-ending story of the Salvator Mundi, famous for being the most expensive painting in the world, continued to make headlines ahead of the exhibition.

In 2017, it was bought at auction for around $450 million, allegedly by the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman through an intermediary who was the Saudi Culture Minister. It was then announced that it would be   displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened shortly after the auction. It never showed up. The painting disappeared from the public eye without any explanation. It is said to be hidden somewhere in a luxury yacht or in a vault in Switzerland.

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Curators of the Paris exhibition reportedly wanted to include the painting in the show. However, according to The Art Newspaper, the Savaltor Mundi would have been described as "attributed to" Leonardo — a term used to suggest the lack of scholarly consensus on the issue, meaning the Italian should not be acknowledged as the definitive author of the work.

And to keep the mystery going, shortly before the opening exhibition it was reported that the Louvre would be ready to include the painting — even if it arrived midway through the show.

Despite the difficult loan negotiations and the tremendous costs to insure the works, the Louvre is confident the show will pay off, with 5,000 to 7,000 visitors expected daily. Ahead of the opening of the show, 180,000 tickets had already been sold online.

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