All the controversies surrounding the Louvre’s blockbuster Leonardo exhibition

Work of genius.
Work of genius.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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The Louvre’s massive Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, which marks the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, opens today (Oct. 24) in Paris. The exhibition was planned for over a decade, and involved agreements with museums around the world to borrow some 160 works. And yet, the controversial Leonardo painting Salvator Mundi will not be part of it, the famous drawing Vitruvian Man almost didn’t make it, and the Mona Lisa will, at least technically, not be in the show.

France versus Italy

The Louvre owns more Leonardo works than any other institutions in the world, but it still borrowed many from elsewhere, and getting early paintings from Italy was the hardest. Italy and France have long had a minor rivalry when it comes to Leonardo’s legacy: The painter was born in Italy, but died in France, and while Italy has many important early works, France has the Mona Lisa.

Italy’s government created a committee to evaluate the loans, and Louvre’s curators had to negotiate with various Italian institutions, but a deal was signed between the Italian and French culture ministries in 2017. Problem arose when the Italian centrist government that signed that deal was replaced by a coalition of populist and far-right parties the following year. The new administration threatened to cancel the deal, in part because it believed France was trying to steal the limelight from Italy on the anniversary of its most famous painter.

He made it.
He made it.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

But Italy’s government changed once again in 2019, replaced by a more centrist coalition. After talks between the Italian and French culture ministries, and an encounter between the Italian and French presidents in the château in central France where the painter lived, the deal was back on. In the end, the works, including the Vitruvian Man—Leonardo’s famed study of body proportions—were allowed to travel to Paris.

The Louvre is also borrowing more than 40 works from the UK, about 30 from other institutions in France, and a dozen from the US, among other countries. The Wall Street Journal reports that the main negotiation technique in those situations is barter. Museums don’t usually charge to lend works, but they expect equally important works in return in some future occasion. The Louvre is getting all the Leonardos it wants from Italy, for example, but it’ll have to lend its precious Raphaels to the country next year.

Notorious absences

Despite the years of planning, the high-level negotiations, and the bartering and begging, two major works will be missing from the exhibition.

New home.
New home.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The first absence is less serious: The Mona Lisa will remain in its gallery, in the permanent collection of the museum, instead of being moved to the rooms, used for temporary exhibitions, holding the Leonardo show. The painting’s gallery has recently been refurbished (its walls are now dark blue instead of the previous yellow). It’s also larger. While the galleries hosting the Leonardo show comport 7,000 people per day, the gallery hosting the Mona Lisa can host 30,000 people.

But visitors will have a replacement. They’ll be able to see the Mona Lisa in a virtual reality experience developed by the Louvre in partnership with French VR firm Emissive and using a HTC headset. In one sense, the virtual version of the Mona Lisa will be better than the real one because its creators removed the selfie-taking crowds that surround the artwork at any given second.

The other absence is more controversial: The Louvre tried to borrow Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting in the world, bought in 2017 for $450 million, allegedly by the Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the museum was denied the loan. The painting has disappeared from public view since its purchase, and some experts question its attribution to Leonardo. Its absence from the exhibition will only add to its mystery.

The Art Newspaper reports that the curators negotiated with the Saudis over a loan until the very last minute, and even produced a version of the catalogue with the painting. It might be included in the Louvre show in the future but for now visitors will have to be satisfied with a copy of the work.

How to get in

“Leonardo da Vinci” opens Oct. 24 and ends Feb. 24. Tickets cost €17 ($19) and have to be booked in advance for specific time slots, a measure to handle the expected crowds. The Louvre received more than 10 million people last year, and the Leonardo show should help it break that record this year. More than 200,000 tickets have already been sold, and the museum’s site is crashing due to the number of people trying to buy them. Tickets for the first two weekends are already sold out.