Workers at the Uffizi Museum in Florence put the 6.5ft-long, 3ft-tall Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation painting in protective crates, when it was loaned out in 2007. Image Credit: AP

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 Da Vinci masterpieces loaned from Italian museums to mark the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s death.

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

Tug of war

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

Borgonzoni criticised how as part of the 2017 arrangement, Italy also pledged to programme 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 October 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 Da Vinci drawings. But director Eike D. Schmidt said his museum is nixing the Louvre’s request for its stellar trio of the master’s paintings, because “simply, these works are so extremely fragile. No museum in the world would ever lend them.”

Universal appeal

Last summer, when the three works 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 done when Da Vinci was just 20, and 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 work by the genius — ‘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 Da Vinci painting and his most famous work.

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 paintings of his to Milan for an exhibition during the 2015 Expo in that northern Italian city. In all, the Louvre has five of the polymath’s 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.”