On any given day, when you visit the Louvre in Paris, there is always a line to get to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) painted by Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci. Having jostled my way through a crowd, I finally got a glimpse of the ‘lady with the secret smile’, and to be brutally honest, I was a tad bit disappointed. Primarily because there was a big fat yellow line separating me from going up close to the artwork, and it was behind a bullet proof non-reflective glass. The painting itself was smaller than the other da Vinci works in the Louvre (for which there was notably no line), and one could barely get that quick glimpse before one was hustled away from the work by security.
One cannot blame the authorities at the Louvre for making the work inaccessible, given that the painting was stolen in 1911 by Vincenzo Peruggia, who carried out what has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th century. Besides the constant flare and glare of camera flashlights is said to oxidise artworks, and hence the painting remains out of reach and behind protective glass.
Addressing this anxiety of not having access to one of the world’s greatest artworks, the Louvre, as part of its commemorative festival to mark the 500-year death anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci (May 2, 1519) in France, the Musée du Louvre is designing and holding a major retrospective of the painter’s career, featuring three of the great master’s restored artworks. While the Mona Lisa will remain in her designated space, a new media section will allow people, especially the youngsters, to interact with the paintings. A virtual reality experience, developed in partnership with HTC Vive Arts, will allow visitors to get closer than ever to the Mona Lisa.
The entire exhibition has been designed to illustrate how da Vinci placed utmost importance on painting. A genius of sorts, da Vinci had many unfinished projects that investigated the world of art and science. It was what he referred to as ’the science of painting‘, which became the ’instrument of art; through which he sought to bring life to his paintings.
Alongside its own collection of five paintings by da Vinci, the largest in the world, and 22 of his drawings, the Louvre will display nearly 120 works that comprise paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculptures, objets d'art from some of the most prestigious European and American institutions, including, for the moment, the Royal Collection, the British Museum, the National Gallery in London, the Vatican Pinacoteca, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Institut de France. The Mona Lisa, however, will remain on display in the galleries of the permanent collection.
“The extraordinary renown of this endlessly curious artist, who quickly came to be seen as the embodiment of universal genius and knowledge, the nearly surrealist aura of the Mona Lisa, and the considerable literature that has amassed from his lifetime to today, provide an ambiguous and fragmented vision of Leonardo’s relationship to painting,” write exhibition curators Vincent Delieuvin, Department of Paintings, and Louis Frank, Department of Prints and Drawings, Musée du Louvre, in their catalogue essay.
The exhibition is the culmination of more than 10 years of work, notably including new scientific examinations of the Louvre’s paintings, and the conservation treatment of three of them - the Saint Anne, La Belle Ferronnière, and the Saint John the Baptist, allowing for better understanding of da Vinci’s artistic practice and pictorial technique. The exhibition also aims to shed light on da Vinci’s biography through the exhaustive re-examination of historical documentation, breaking with the canonical approach to the life of the Florentine master - based on six chronological periods punctuated by his geographical movements - and turning to a selection of keys that provide access to his universe. Thus, emerges the portrait of an exceptionally free-spirited man and an artist.
Upon leaving the Louvre, I remembered the apocryphal tale of Leonardo da Vinci’s last journey from Rome across the Alps to France. Travelling by mule, at the age of 64, the painter packed the Mona Lisa into a saddle bag to carry it to the great Renaissance king, Francis I of France, who tempted him to his court with promise of a huge pension and his own chateau in the Loire. It was assumed that da Vinci would secure employment at Francis I’s court, but he fell ill during the long journey and did not quite make it to the court, dying along the way in Loire.
To commemorate this great painter, architect, scientist and visionary, a partner exhibition in Milan mirrors the greatness of this Renaissance master and art lovers can look forward to revisiting much of da Vinci’s work, including the Last Supper at the Sistine Chapel in Milan, and his most obscure artwork - a painting of Mulberry Trees, at the Sala delle Asse.
The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre will be on display from October 24, 2019 to February 24, 2020, at Hall Napoléon, under the Pyramid.