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Political row threatens Louvre plans to mark 500 years since da Vinci’s death

Sharad1951, Wikimedia Commons | Three paintings by Leonardo da Vinci: St John the Baptist, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, and the Mona Lisa.

The Louvre wants to show all of da Vinci’s paintings next May in one grand exhibit to mark 500 years since his death. But Italy’s League party is now threatening to scuttle the cultural exchange deal that would have made the Louvre plan possible.

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A prolific artist that exemplified the Renaissance man of his day, Leonardo da Vinci was born near the town of Vinci in 1452 but spent most of his professional life in Florence and Milan. Near the end of his life he was invited by French king Francis I to stay at the Château du Clos Lucé near Amboise, where he died in 1519.

Plans have long been in the works to mark the 500th anniversary of his death on May 2, 2019, with exhibits set to go on display across Europe and the Louvre hoping to show all of the master’s paintings in a single grand exposition. In exchange, the Louvre would loan its works by another famed Renaissance artist, Raphael, to Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale museum for an upcoming exhibition that will mark 500 years since his death in 2020.

But now members of Italy’s right-wing League party are expressing opposition to the deal, which was agreed with the previous Italian government last year.

Lucia Borgonzoni, the undersecretary for Italy’s cultural heritage ministry, told Britain’s Telegraph that she considers the agreement “one of the biggest, most shameful acts of the previous government with regard to cultural heritage”.

In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Borgonzoni said making this exchange at such a key moment would sideline Italy’s role in the anniversary commemorations.

"To give the Louvre all these paintings would put Italy on the margins of a major cultural event," she said, adding: "Leonardo is Italian. He only died in France.”

Borgonzoni called for the deal to be completely renegotiated.

"We need to discuss everything again. Where museums' autonomy is concerned, national interest cannot come second,” she said.

“The French cannot have everything.”

Self-portrait Leonardoda-Vinci.org

Art historian Jacques Franck, a da Vinci specialist and a consultant to France’s national museums, told FRANCE 24 he understood why Italy would not be able to part with any considerable da Vinci masterpieces during the upcoming commemoration period. But he said it was “unfortunate” that Italy has reneged on pledges it made in the past.

“Just a year before the opening of the grand exhibition is really short notice,” he said. “I can understand that the Italians today, and this particular government, may want to use these works to have their own event in Italy. But on the other hand, I think it's a bit late to express this wish when the Louvre must now make other plans.”

“When you write an exhibition catalog, it must be ready months in advance,” he said.

Relations between Italy and France have taken a downturn since Italy’s new populist government took power in June, with interior minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini clashing publicly with French President Emmanuel Macron over immigration and border security. A spat over the fate of the Aquarius migrant rescue ship further inflamed bilateral tensions.

Museum directors in Venice, Turin and Florence told the Telegraph they were contacted about loaning out their most famous Leonardo paintings.

“We’ve stopped everything and the ministry is taking it into our own hands now,” Borgonzoni said.

Wikimedia Commons | Francis I Receives the Last Breaths of Leonardo da Vinci by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

A controversy for the ages

Pascal Brioist, a historian and a specialist in the Renaissance, told FRANCE 24 that the nationalist claims and counter claims surrounding da Vinci have existed for centuries. Notably, one often hears the accusation that France “stole” the Mona Lisa from Italy.

“All the Leonardo paintings in France were sold by him to France in the 16th century. We have the contracts,” Brioist said, adding: “The controversies first started from there.”

The Mona Lisa (known in France as La Joconde) was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian worker who wanted to return it to Italy. And under Mussolini in the 1930s, the fascists “saw in Leonardo the very incarnation of Italian genius”, Brioist said. “They exhibited models of Leonardo's machines to demonstrate the greatness of Italy.”

And yet, in da Vinci’s time – when what is known as Italy today was just a collection of principalities – his greatness was more appreciated by France than it was in his native land, according to Brioist. When da Vinci decided to leave for France in 1515, he was already having problems at home.

“He was seeing competition from members of the younger generation like Raphael, Michelangelo, who – in the eyes of the pope – were seen as more reliable than Leonardo,” said Brioist.“He knew that he did not necessarily have a future at the court of Pope Leo X, so he went to France. King Francis I welcomed him with open arms and offered him a generous pension … more than some nobles earned. And he had every reason in the world to accept the invitation.”

Brioist surmised that the current row actually has its roots in the controversy that followed France’s World Cup victory earlier this year, when outcry erupted in Italy after the Louvre tweeted a photo of the Mona Lisa wearing a French football jersey.

“It made them angry,” he said.

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