Italy, France at loggerheads over celebrating Leonardo da Vinci anniversary

Updated 2018-12-09 08:03:00

500 Years of Genius Exhibition in Athens, Greece on November 29, 2018. [Photo/IC]

ROME - The 500th anniversary of the death of Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci is causing an unexpected turf war between the two countries the artist called home.

Italy and France, the two neighbors in Europe have been known in recent years for clashing over policies on migration, populism, economics, and their roles in the European Union.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini even traded barbs recently about what's going on in the other country.

Now, the two countries are at odds over which of them should celebrate the anniversary of the death of da Vinci, the famed painter, sculptor, writer, inventor, scientist and mathematician.

The polymath's full name, Leonardo da Vinci, is Italian for "Leonardo from Vinci", named after the town where he was born in 1452, just outside Florence in what is now Italy. He died 67 years later in Amboise, southwest of the French capital of Paris where he lived for three years.

Eight of da Vinci's 15 known masterpieces are in Italy. But Louvre owns five of his paintings, more than any other museum. Among them is the "Gioconda" -- best known as the "Mona Lisa" -- the most famous of da Vinci's works.

It is the Louvre that first planned to commemorate the 500th anniversary of da Vinci, who died in 1519. A year ago, the world's largest museum struck an agreement with the Italian government for several of da Vinci's works housed in Uffizi Galleries in Florence and elsewhere in the country to be loaned to it for a special exhibit to mark the quincentennial. The event is scheduled to open on Oct 24, 2019.

But the new Italian government, in power since June, wants to renege on that agreement.

"The deal with the Louvre is unfair, unbelievable," said Lucia Borgonzoni, an under-secretary with Italy's Ministry of Culture. "I respect the autonomy of museums, but national interests cannot be put in second place. The French can't have everything. Why don't they loan us the 'Mona Lisa' instead?"

The agreement was struck by Dario Franceschini, minister of culture from 2014 until earlier this year. In return, the Louvre promised to loan Italy several paintings by another Renaissance master, Raphael, in order to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death, in 2020. But Borgonzoni scoffed at that idea: "Most of Raphael's paintings are already in Italy," she said.

Borgonzoni said the ministry only became aware of the agreement between the two countries after it began organizing its own celebrations for the anniversary of da Vinci's death.

Luca Martucci, a tourism industry consultant and commentator about the clash over da Vinci's works, agreed with Borgonzoni's views on the topic.

"Look, Leonardo was Italian," Martucci told Xinhua. "Italy has to learn to market itself better. The anniversary of Leonardo's death could attract many tourists to Italy. I respect the French, but Italy cannot just hand that kind of an event away."

Luca Desiata, an art curator and a former professor of art management at Rome's LUISS University, said the decision over whether or not museums should loan each other paintings should not be made based on politics but rather on what is best for the paintings themselves.

"The fact is that these highly important, 500-year-old paintings should not be moved," Desiata said in an interview. "A museum can simply not run the risk that the works could be damaged during transport."

500 Years of Genius Exhibition in Athens, Greece on November 29, 2018. [Photo/IC]

Those in favor of the loans note that "Annunciation", one of the masterpieces in the Uffizi Museum painted by a young da Vinci and his teacher Andrea del Verrocchio, was loaned to the Tokyo National Museum in Japan in 2007.

At that time, dozens of Italian art patrons chained themselves to the gates of the Uffizi in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the transfer. The museum's director at the time spoke out against it. But in the end the loan was completed without incident.

Eike Schmidt, current director of the Uffizi Galleries, said the museum is mulling the possibility of loaning the French museum several Leonardo drawings and perhaps some of his minor works, but was against loaning "Annunciation" or the two other major da Vinci works to the Louvre.

Schmidt, a German national, told journalists last month that in 2017, when the three works were moved up one flight of stairs in the Uffizi, so many precautions were taken that it seemed like "an expedition up Mount Everest, or a trip to the moon." He said the paintings were "far too fragile" to be shipped to France.

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