London’s National Gallery has spent five years diplomatically preparing for this incredible exhibition.
Tourists and art lovers in London have a truly once in a lifetime opportunity to visit an amazing Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, where for the first time ever half of his extraordinary paintings are together in one place.
The show focuses on the years Leonardo spent at the Court of Milan (1482-1500) so his most famous painting the ‘Monna Lisa’ (painted in Florence after 1503) is not included amongst the work on show. However visitors will not be disappointed. The gallery has bought together other masterpieces such as ‘The Lady with an Ermine’ (portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) and the two versions of the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ (one belonging to the Louvre and the other currently hanging in the National Gallery).
Leonardo being a painter who so rarely finished anything, it still remains a mystery why he painted two almost identical versions of this composition: art historians and experts have not been able to offer a credible answer, though it seems plausible that it has something to do with those who commissioned the painting in the first place. In any case, people attending the exhibition will have the opportunity to admire for the first time ever, both paintings in the same room. “I am quite sure that the experience of seeing these masterpieces juxtaposed will be one that none of us will ever forget or that will ever be repeated” said the director of the National Gallery, Dr Nicholas Penny. The versions sit directly opposite each other, so visitors can really see and appreciate the differences in the two paintings.
Certainly it has not been easy for the National Gallery to borrow the painting form the Louvre: negotiations started in 2008 and were only concluded last July, after more than three years of diplomacy by the curator of the exhibition, Luke Syson. This has been the story of this show, as Syson has travelled to cultural institutions around the world to secure valuable lending: from the Royal Collection in Windsor, that has the most important group of Leonardo drawings in the world, to the Czartoryski Foundation in Cracow (the Lady with the Ermine), to the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan (Portrait of a Musician), to the Louvre (that in addition to the Virgin of the Rocks is lending also La Belle Ferronnière). In the end, the National Gallery obtained the loan of seven (out of fourteen on display) paintings and more than fifty drawings.
There is no duty or legal requirement for a museum to lend its works for exhibitions and special events and most of the times such a result is granted thanks to professional relations and even personal friendship between directors (and curators) of different institutions, with security issues and travel arrangements at the top of the lender’s concerns.
Another important question is the length of the loan, during which the lending museum will be bereft of one masterpiece, and that explains why many important exhibitions will last only few months, in spite of the various years needed for organising them (only three months in the case of Leonardo, against more than five years of planning and preparation).
There are, however, very good reasons to lend an artwork to another institution: on the one hand, building strong relationship and the possibility of future exchanges, while on the other, to make a serious contribution to the study of a particular author/period and to develop further the scholarship.
Cultural integration, according to the Maastricht treaty, is one of the main aims of the European Union but so far the main activity on this sphere has been on issues of copyright and artistic production. On matters of defining and protecting cultural heritage there is no common policy and the national legislation still prevails.
However the major European institutions decided to create a structure, called the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) which promotes better co-ordination amongst cultural institutions and developed a set of common practices and training packages for museum staff and directors (especially collections mobility). The mobility of artworks not only permits the organisation of extraordinary exhibitions such as the Leonardo one, but also makes European citizens acquainted with their own and other cultures, enabling them to pass on this heritage to future generations.
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan opened 9 November 2011 and runs until 5 February 2012. Tickets and more information available here.