Italy livid about deal to loan Leonardo works to Louvre

  • In this Monday March 12, 2007 file photo, Senator Paolo Amato, left, of the Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, and some Florentine citizens chains themselves to the gates of the Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy, to protest the loan of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation”’ for a show at Japan’s National Museum in Tokyo. Banners read, from left, “Annunciation must stay in the Uffizi Museum!!”, at center: “Rutelli (Italian vice-Premier) leaves Florence alone!!” Leonardo da Vinci is often hailed as the most universal genius. Not for Italy’s nationalist government, which is livid that the Louvre is counting on Italian museums to lend many of the native Italian native’s masterpieces for a blockbuster exhibit in Paris. (AP Photo/Fabrizio Giovannozzi, File )

  • In this Monday, March 27, 2017 file photo, visitors take pictures of Leonardo da Vinci's "Adoration of the Three Wise Men", returned to the public of the Uffizi museum after 6 years of study and restoration, in Florence, Italy. Leonardo da Vinci is often hailed as the most universal genius. Not for Italy’s nationalist government, which is livid that the Louvre is counting on Italian museums to lend many of the native Italian native's masterpieces for a blockbuster exhibit in Paris. (Maurizio Degl'Innocenti/ANSA via AP, File)

ROME — So versatile were Leonardo da Vinci’s talents in art and science and so boundless his visionary imagination, he is known to the world as the universal genius.

But not to Italy’s nationalist-tilting government, which is livid about plans by the Louvre museum in Paris for a blockbuster exhibit next year with as many as possible Leonardo masterpieces loaned from Italian museums to mark the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s death.

“It’s unfair, a mistaken deal,” Italian Culture Ministry Undersecretary Lucia Borgonzoni said of a 2017 agreement between a previous government and the Louvre. “Leonardo is an Italian genius,” she told The Associated Press this week.

Borgonzoni is a senator from the League, the “Italians-first” sovereignty-championing party in the nearly six-month-old populist government.

She was elaborating on comments earlier this month, in Italian daily Corriere della Sera, in which she said of Leonardo: “In France, all he did was die.”

Leonardo was born in 1452 in the Tuscan town of Vinci, Italy, and died in Amboise, France, in 1519.

Borgonzoni criticized how as part of the 2017 arrangement, Italy also pledged to program its own exhibits so they won’t compete with the Louvre mega-show.

The Louvre declined to comment on Italy’s objections, nor say which artworks it requested from Italy, noting it’s nearly a year before the four-months-long exhibit opens on Oct. 24, 2019.

Exhibit curator, Vincent Delieuvin, part of the Louvre’s staff, also serves on the Italian Culture Ministry’s committee which evaluated proposals from museums worldwide for the celebrations. He didn’t reply to an emailed request for comment.

“While respecting the autonomy of museums, national interests can’t be put in second place,” Borgonzoni told Corriere. “The French can’t have everything.”

And it appears they won’t get all they want.

The Uffizi Galleries in Florence is considering loaning the Louvre several Leonardo drawings. But director Eike D. Schmidt said his museum is nixing the Louvre’s request for its stellar trio of Leonardo paintings because “simply, these works are so extremely fragile. No museum in the world would ever lend them.”

Last summer, when the three Leonardos were moved one flight up in the Uffizi so they would have a room all to themselves, the transfer required preparations “like it was an expedition to Mount Everest, or a space trip to the Moon,” with restoration experts on hand just in case anything got damaged, Schmidt said in a phone interview.

One of the three paintings, “Adoration of the Magi,” only came back to the Uffizi last year, after five years of restoration work in Florence.

In 2007, when “Annunciation,” a painting on wood by a 20-year-old Leonardo depicting the Archangel Gabriel proffering a lily to the Virgin, was about to leave the Uffizi for a Tokyo exhibition, a senator from the conservative Forza Italia (Let’s Go Italy) party and several Florentines chained themselves to a museum gate in a vain attempt to thwart the precious masterpiece from being flown to Japan.

The Uffizi director at the time opposed that loan, but the then-culture minister decided that the painting’s transfer as good for Italy.

For the 2019 celebrations, the Uffizi will loan an early Leonardo work, “Landscape Drawing for Santa Maria Della Neve,” to the Leonardiano Museum in Vinci. Depicting the countryside near Vinci, the drawing is displayed only for a few weeks every four years because of fears prolonged exposure to light will damage it.

Schmidt sounded hopeful the Louvre would understand the Uffizi’s refusal.

“We fully understand why the ‘Mona Lisa’ cannot travel,” he said, referring to the Louvre’s star Leonardo painting.

But while the Louvre won’t ever let the portrait of the woman with the fascinating smile leave its confines, it did send two other Leonardo paintings to Milan for an exhibition during the 2015 Expo in that northern Italian city. In all, the Louvre has five of his paintings, the most of any one museum.

Anniversary committee head Paolo Galluzzi, who directs the Galileo Museum in Florence, insisted that nationalism wasn’t a factor in evaluating anniversary proposals.

“Many could claim him. He was born in Vinci, trained in Florence, and developed in Milan,” Galluzzi said by telephone. “Politicians have different optics,” but in the “world of culture and science we don’t bother with these things.”

Ultimately, he said, what is being celebrated next year is a “universal genius.”


Frances D’Emilio is on Twitter at


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