In Brief

After Diplomatic Squabble, Italy Agrees to Lend France Its Leonardos for Major Exhibition

Italy’s rightwing government initially refused France’s request for Leonardos because it believed the Louvre exhibition would “put Italy on the margins of a major cultural event.”

Leonardo da Vinci, “Virgin of the Rocks” (1483–1486), oil on panel (via Wikimedia Commons)

After months of tension between the culture ministries of Italy and France, the Louvre’s exhibition honoring the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death will continue as planned.

The feud began last November when Lucia Borgonzoni, undersecretary for the Italian culture minister Alberto Bonsioli, publicly denounced the French museum’s ambitious plan to amass an unprecedented number of the Milanese artist’s 17 known paintings together in a single show.

Speaking with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Borgonzoni backtracked on his government’s previously agreed upon loan contract with France. She described the Louvre’s exhibition as putting “Italy on the margins of a major cultural event.” She described the agreement as “unbelievable” because “Leonardo is Italian; he only died in France.”

The undersecretary’s comment came at a politically fraught moment between Italy and France — one which journalists have described as the most serious diplomatic dispute since World War II. Recent elections in Europe have split the continent between entrenched liberalism and an assailing populist right. Such political turmoil has imperiled the European Union, which Eurosceptics like Italy’s ruling Five Star movement want to see abolished. The chasm between the two countries widened last month when French president Emmanuel Macron accused the Italians of meddling in domestic affairs during the “Yellow Vest” protests and temporarily retracted the French ambassador from Italy. (The rightwing Italian politician Luigi Di Maio reportedly met with anti-Macron demonstrators seeking to run for European Parliament.) An agreement to proceed on the Louvre’s Leonardo exhibition may be seen as a gesture of good faith from the Italian government and a denouement to otherwise escalating provocations.

Bonsioli and his undersecretary are members of Italy’s conservative faction. (The culture minister is a member of the country’s ruling Five Star Movement while Borgonzoni is from an allied party, called League.) Working within the boundaries of Trumpian populism, the Italian government has increasingly stoked nationalist fervor by appealing to xenophobic fears during Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis.

On February 28, cultural ministers from both countries met to discuss the prospect of continuing the Louvre loan. “Italy and France are two of the world’s cultural superpowers and we must definitely have a dialogue,” Bonisoli said after the meeting, according to the Financial Times. “We are very happy that France should celebrate the greatness of Leonardo — an Italian genius also appreciated by [France’s] King Francis I at whose court the artist, originally from Vinci, spent the last years of his life.”

The Louvre’s exhibition for the Renaissance artist is scheduled to run from October 24, 2019 to February 24, 2020.

Responding to the meeting’s good news, Macron remarked in an interview on Sunday that he intends to celebrate the anniversary of Leonardo’s death with Italian president Sergio Mattarella in Paris on May 2.

Bonisoli said Italy was “happy that France can celebrate Leonardo’s genius,” whose heritage is “not only Italian but European and universal.” He assured the press that the full list of Leonardo works to be lent to France would soon be confirmed.

The highly-anticipated exhibition has been the occasional source of controversy in the art world. Last month, rumors spread online that the museum had declined to display Salvator Mundi in the show because of its hotly-contested attribution to Leonardo. On the contrary, the museum has already requested a loan for the $450 million painting from its sister site, the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

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