Louvre debuts its biggest ever Leonardo exhibition

The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, is opening its largest ever Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Building on the museum’s Leonardo collection — already the best in the world with five paintings and 22 drawings — the show has been 10 years in the making and will feature over 160 works, including loans from institutions in Italy, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US, as well as France.

The works — paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculptures and artifacts — will be displayed in the museum’s Napoleon Hall for four months starting Oct. 24, and up to 7,000 visitors a day are expected.

The art of the deal

Leonardo’s surviving body of work as a painter is remarkably slim: only about 15 to 20 existing paintings can be comfortably attributed to him, although two of them — the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” — are easily among the most famous in the world. Many are too fragile to be moved, and for most institutions that own them, they represent the pinnacle of the entire collection. Loaning these works involves delicate diplomacy and challenging logistics.

The curators of the Louvre exhibition, Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, have managed to get six Leonardo paintings on loan to add to the museum’s own five, bringing the total to 11. The previous largest Leonardo exhibition, at London’s National Gallery in 2011, featured nine paintings.

“For us it’s easier than for others. We have five of them. We start with a third of all his paintings,” said Vincent Delieuvin on the phone from Paris. “Most of our colleagues were very keen on lending works to us. It will be the biggest exhibition of Leonardo’s paintings and probably the best collection of his drawings and scientific manuscripts.”

The 6 loans are the “Benois Madonna” from the State Hermitage of St Petersburg, the “Saint Jerome” from the Vatican, the “Musician” from the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the “Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata)” from the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, and two paintings both known as the “Madonna of the Yarnwinder” — one from a private collection and the other from The National Gallery in Edinburgh. They will join the five Louvre Leonardos: “La Belle Ferronnière,” the “Virgin of the Rocks,” the “Mary and Child with Saint Anne,” “Saint John the Baptist” and the “Mona Lisa.”

“That’s a pretty great list,” said Luke Syson, who curated the 2011 National Gallery exhibition in London. “I know how hard it is to put together an exhibition of this kind and how complicated the discussions are with each of the lending institutions. Obviously, there’s always going to be discussions and questions about which of those are by Leonardo himself. But these are the opportunities to test those works.”

Notably absent are the three Leonardos owned by the Uffizi in Florence, Italy’s most visited museum, which were the subject of some political