Biggest ever Leonardo da Vinci exhibition to open in Paris

Louvre will host works of Italian artist after long-running political spats and legal battles

The most important blockbuster art show in Paris for half a century took 10 years to prepare and was nearly thwarted by the worst diplomatic standoff between Italy and France since the second world war. With days to go before the opening, there is still no sign of whether one of the major works will appear.

The Louvre’s vast Leonardo da Vinci exhibition to mark 500 years since the death of the Italian Renaissance master will finally open next week as the world’s most-visited museum prepares to handle a huge influx of visitors.

One of the most expensive exhibitions ever staged in France, it is the first time that such a large number of Leonardo’s drawings, sketches, writings and paintings have ever been brought together.

But a question mark still hangs over whether Salvator Mundi — the world’s most expensive painting — will be loaned. Mystery surrounds who owns the painting, a depiction of Jesus in Renaissance dress, which was once thought to be held in the Gulf. Unusually, the exhibition space has been designed to accommodate pictures arriving or being refused at the last minute. “We’ve never been in this situation before,” a museum representative said.

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre. Photograph: Antoine Mongodin

Leonardo, whose life has been a constant source of myth-making, is considered a visionary genius – a painter, scientist, engineer and inventor. Born the illegitimate son of a notary in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci in 1452, the Italian humanist worked in Florence and Milan, and spent his final years at the court of the French king Francis I in the Loire, where he died on 2 May 1519. Since then what is known on his life has been pored over and seized upon; his vegetarianism and interest in animal welfare have been cited by French anti-hunting groups while the androgynous faces in many of his portraits are considered by some as a modern questioning of gender.

At the heart of the Louvre’s exhibition are the lessons that can be learned about Leonardo’s personality from the awe-inspiring realism in his work: portraits such as La Belle Ferronnière, the Mona Lisa or his depiction of Saint John the Baptist.

Leonardo painted relatively little – there are only about 15 remaining paintings – of which nine are in this show. He worked painstakingly slowly, often spending more than a decade on a painting. The exhibition includes many of his outstanding drawings. The curators argue that his interest in science – particularly astronomy, botany and his constant grappling with mathematical problems – was not a digression that pulled him away from art, but was central to his quest to achieve perfection in his painting.

“He had an ability not just to depict things from the outside, but to also show what was inside: the movement and vibration of life, the inner emotions,” said Louis Frank, one of the show’s curators.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.
Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Photograph: Gianni Cigolini/Mondadori Portfolio/Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Yet the Mona Lisa – one of the main attractions for the Louvre’s 30,000 visitors a day – will remain upstairs in its usual permanent hanging place. The temporary exhibition space devoted to the Leonardo show can only accommodate 7,000 people per day and the museum did not want to prevent other visitors seeing it. There will also be a virtual reality experience of the Mona Lisa for the first time. As the Louvre faces ever higher visitor numbers, the Leonardo exhibition will only be open to people who have pre-booked.

The whole exhibition was in danger last year when Leonardo was dragged into a long-running political spat between Italy’s then far-right ruling League party and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. Italy said it would cancel the loan of some paintings, accusing France of trying to take centre stage in the commemorations marking 500 years since the painter’s death. “Leonardo is Italian; he only died in France,” one far-right MP said.

The row was finally resolved but then a last-minute legal challenge this month nearly stopped da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – a study in anatomical proportions – from appearing. An Italian heritage group said the drawing, which is kept in a climate-controlled vault at the Accademia Gallery of Venice, was too fragile to travel and risked being damaged by lighting in the Louvre if displayed for a long period. A court ruled the work could travel. It is currently in transit, and will arrive next week to be shown for a limited period.

Vincent Delieuvin, one of the show’s curators, said the exhibition would explain how Leonardo established that the secret to creating perfect paintings that laid bare human nature was to capture light, shade and movement. For Leonardo, it was about opening one’s mind to “an absolute freedom” in drawing and painting, Delieuvin said.


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
More than Mona Lisa: Louvre's Leonardo da Vinci is a blockbuster with brains
From a windmill-punk helicopter to a VR Mona Lisa that the artist himself would have loved, this show blows away his old-master reputation to present a relentlessly modern mind

Jonathan Jones

21, Oct, 2019 @2:23 PM

Article image
Mona Lisa: the early years? Art world split over Leonardo da Vinci 'work'
Portrait claimed to be of younger version of painter's muse to be unveiled in Geneva by art foundation

David Batty and agencies

26, Sep, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
The lost Leonardo? Louvre show ditches Salvator Mundi over authenticity doubts
Art experts remain divided on the origins of the world’s most expensive painting

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

26, May, 2019 @12:47 PM

Article image
Leonardo's Vitruvian Man can go to the Louvre, court rules
Challenge by Italian heritage group threatened to disrupt deal with Paris museum

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

16, Oct, 2019 @4:25 PM

Article image
Leonardo da Vinci work 'too fragile' to be transported to France
Italian group refuses to loan Vitruvian Man to Louvre for 500th anniversary exhibition

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

08, Oct, 2019 @6:39 PM

Article image
Leonardo da Vinci experts identify painting as lost Isabella D'Este portrait
Portrait found among private Swiss collection has a Mona Lisa smile and same paint pigment and primer as those used by artist

Tom Kington in Rome

04, Oct, 2013 @1:16 PM

Article image
Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting
Crystal sphere in Salvator Mundi artwork lacks optical exactitude, causing experts to speculate over motive and authenticity

Dalya Alberge

18, Oct, 2017 @11:00 PM

Article image
Leonardo da Vinci dragged into Salvini's spat with Macron
Louvre blockbuster marking 500 years since artist’s death may end up a casualty

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and Angela Giuffrida in Rome

02, Feb, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Too rude for Paris? 'Copulating' sculpture causes stir in French capital
Dutch artist says it is not sexual, but Louvre decided giant sculpture of human appearing to copulate with an animal was too rude to be displayed

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

18, Oct, 2017 @3:26 PM

Article image
Art historians say they have found evidence of hidden Leonardo da Vinci
Researchers who drilled through a fresco in Florence's town hall say paint used by Leonardo was found in the cavity behind

Tom Kington in Florence

12, Mar, 2012 @1:27 PM