Your first chance to see the “new” Leonardo
How the National Gallery negotiated a record eight loans including a long-lost canvas, Saviour of the World
By Martin Bailey. Features, Issue 227, September 2011
Published online: 31 October 2011
How does one borrow a Leonardo? The process of negotiating loans is normally shrouded in mystery (except for those involved), so we have delved behind the scenes of the National Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition. Since the gallery maintained its usual discretion, we put together the pieces of the puzzle to discover how it has assembled “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”. Opening in November, it looks set to be the most important exhibition of the year in London—and possibly in the world.
The National Gallery faced a formidable challenge, since there are so few paintings by Leonardo. Although specialists disagree on the precise number, curator Luke Syson puts the figure at 15. He wanted all those made for ruler Ludovico Sforza from 1482 to 1499, plus some slightly later works. Unlike most exhibitions, there were no possible substitutes, so every loan request was crucial.
Syson began work in 2007 with eight paintings on his wish list. When the show was announced in May, he had notched up seven pictures, an astonishing achievement. Then came two more. The gallery confirmed on 6 July the loan of Salvator Mundi, a totally new discovery—and the first Leonardo to be accepted for over a century. Three weeks later came news that the Louvre had agreed to the unprecedented loan of its Virgin of the Rocks. So London will host the largest show of Leonardo’s paintings since the legendary Milan retrospective of 1939.
In borrowing for any major exhibition, three factors are vital. First, the venue must have appropriate environmental and security conditions. The National Gallery has an excellent record, although this has been marred by two recent incidents involving its own paintings. These were the disastrous dropping of Beccafumi’s Marcia, 1519, at the de-installation of “Renaissance Siena” in January 2008, and the vandalism of Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf and The Adoration of the Shepherds, both 1633-34, on 17 July this year (a visitor threw red paint at the works, although this was subsequently removed).
Second, an exhibition featuring important loans needs a strong scholarly basis. Syson, curator of the gallery’s pre-1500 Italian paintings, is well respected internationally (he takes over as head of European sculpture and decorative arts at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art next January). His exhibition concept, focusing on Leonardo’s Milan years, will break new ground.
Third, the paintings must be safe to travel on conservation grounds. Leonardo’s works were done on panel, which makes them vulnerable, but transport arrangements are now very sophisticated. Each painting requested on loan was subjected to a detailed conservation assessment.
An additional problem with Leonardos is that they are among the most important works in their respective galleries, so visitors expect to see them there. Many major exhibitions travel to two or three venues, but the loss of a Leonardo for up to a year would have been unacceptable to owners, as well as increasing conservation risks, so the show will only be seen in London.
The National Gallery had to plan its tactics for each loan request. In some cases, an “exchange” was offered—a Crivelli for the Hermitage, a Botticelli for the Ambrosiana and a Leonardo cartoon for the Louvre. In other instances, owners were partly responding to the generosity previously displayed by the National Gallery in terms of loans. In one case, a fee was paid, to Kraków’s Czartoryski Museum. National Gallery director Nicholas Penny was closely involved in these arrangements, which were approved by the gallery’s trustees.
Syson astutely won early support from the Royal Collection, which holds the world’s most important group of Leonardo drawings. Windsor curators indicated that the Queen might well lend relevant drawings, an additional encouragement for owners to lend their pictures.
The resulting exhibition will be the most valuable this year in London, in financial terms. This is reflected in government indemnity to the National Gallery in 2011/12 (the figure includes loans for all temporary exhibitions, as well as loans displayed with the permanent collection). Total indemnity is £3.3 billion, up from £1.8 billion last year. The £1.5 billion increase cannot be equated simply to the Leonardo loans, but it does indicate the scale of the value of the exhibition.
Along with delight at the success of the Leonardo loan requests, there remain concerns about the risk to fragile works. Martin Kemp, Britain’s leading Leonardo specialist, told us: “Some paintings, such as the Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, have in the past been lent on slender pretexts, apparently for financial gain—although the National Gallery exhibition justifies such major loans.” But he added: “I am worried by the loan of the Louvre’s The Virgin of the Rocks, which is not in good condition, and the apparent willingness of the National Gallery to reciprocate by lending The Leonardo Cartoon to the Louvre. I was told a few years ago that even moving it to another exhibition space in London was unthinkable.”
What is certain is that the show, which can accommodate nearly 300,000 visitors, will be a sell-out. For art lovers and scholars, it represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many of Leonardo’s paintings together.
The Virgin and Child (Madonna Litta), 1490-92, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
The painting was bought by the Hermitage in 1865 from the Litta family in Milan. Since the second world war, it has been lent to Paris (1962), Moscow (1962), Madrid/Milan (1990) and Rome/Venice (2003-04). Having been transferred from panel onto canvas, it was last conserved in 1953.
In return for the Leonardo, the National Gallery is lending Crivelli’s The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, 1486, which will be shown from 12 November to 5 February 2012.
The Virgin and Child will be displayed in London as an autograph work by Leonardo, following the views of Hermitage curator Tatiana Kustodieva. Other specialists believe that it is partly the work of an assistant.
Portrait of a Woman (La Belle Ferronnière), 1492-94, Louvre, Paris
La Belle Ferronnière was acquired by the Louvre in 1793. It was lent for the first time last October, when it went to the Grand Palais in Paris for the “France 1500” exhibition. The National Gallery has close links with the Louvre, and the loan will be the first time that the painting has gone abroad.
Syson believes the portrait probably depicts Lucrezia Crivelli, who succeeded Gallerani as Sforza’s mistress. Minor restoration, including removal of old varnish, was undertaken in 1952.
St Jerome, 1488-90, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City
St Jerome has been lent in recent years to New York (1983), Tokyo (1993), Bonn (1998), New York (2003), Florence (2006) and Atlanta/Los Angeles (2009-10). Syson and his colleague Rachel Billinge have researched the underdrawing, concluding that the picture was painted in the late 1480s, not the early part of the decade, as previously assumed.
The unfinished painting was last conserved just before the 1993 Tokyo exhibition (the boards had been vulnerable to splitting).
Madonna of the Yarnwinder, 1501 and later, 10th Duke of Buccleuch and Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust
The Buccleuch painting was lent to the 1939 Leonardo retrospective in Milan and remained stuck in Italy during the war, but was recovered in 1945. It was stolen from the family seat, Drumlanrig Castle, south of Glasgow, on 27 August 2003 but was recovered in October 2007. Since January 2008, it has been on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland.
Syson believes the work was started by Leonardo, who painted the figures and the foreground rocks. An unidentified, possibly Florentine artist finished the painting, perhaps after Leonardo’s death in 1519.
Another version, known as the Lansdowne Madonna, is accepted by some scholars as the prime version. Now owned by a New York private collector, it was shown earlier this year at the Art Institute of Chicago and has just been sent to Florence for a detailed examination.
Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine), 1489-90, Princes Czartoryski Foundation, Kraków
The Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani was initially regarded as the centrepiece of the exhibition. Acquired by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski in 1800, it was seized by the Nazis in 1940 and recovered by American troops in 1945, when it was returned to the Czartoryski family for their Kraków museum. The Polish Association of Art Historians claims that it is now valued at €300m.
The portrait was first lent to Moscow (1972) and Washington (1992), and was then frequently on the move—to Malmo/Stockholm (1993), Rome/Milan/ Florence (1998), Kyoto/Nagoya/Yokohama (2001-02), Milwaukee/Houston/San Francisco (2002-03), Budapest (2009) and Madrid (2011).
It is currently the star attraction at Berlin’s Bode Museum exhibition on “Renaissance Faces”.
The number of loans in the past 20 years has caused great concern. It is normally lent for a fee and most conservators feel that panel paintings should travel only rarely.
Maria Osterwa-Czekaj, deputy head of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation, confirmed that an undisclosed fee will be paid by the National Gallery. The money is earmarked for upgrading the Kraków museum’s building, which closed in early 2010 and is due to reopen at the end of next year.
The National Gallery rarely pays fees for loans and never charges when it lends. It might be considered inappropriate to spend its government grant on loan fees, so payment for the Czartoryski Leonardo forms part of the sponsorship deal with Credit Suisse.
The loan was threatened earlier this year when Polish art historians and conservators protested. Janusz Czop, chief conservator at the National Museum in Kraków (of which the Czartoryski Museum is part), was among those expressing concern. The National Gallery then contacted UK culture minister Ed Vaizey, who raised the matter with his Polish counterpart, and the loan was confirmed in April. It was also stated that the painting would not travel again until 2022.
Further questions were raised in July, when Olga Jaros replaced Adam Zamoyski as chairman of the foundation, but representative Kinga Glazek told us that the loan remains “firmly agreed”.
Cecilia Gallerani, the sitter, was Prince Ludovico Sforza’s mistress in the late 1480s. The painting was conserved in 1956.
Portrait of a Musician, 1485-88, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Portrait of a Musician will leave Italy for the first time when it comes to London (it has been at the Ambrosiana since at least 1671). The painting has left Milan only once since the second world war, when it was lent to the Capitoline Museums in Rome last December.
To help secure the loan, the National Gallery is lending Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, 1500, which this winter will be shown alongside the Ambrosiana’s own Botticelli, Madonna of the Pavilion, 1490s.
Portrait of a Musician was last conserved in 1904, when considerable later overpaint was removed. Syson believes that the sitter may have been Atalante Miglioretti, a singer and instrument-maker who knew Leonardo.
The Virgin of the Rocks, 1491-1508, National Gallery, London
This is the only painting by Leonardo owned by the gallery, which it bought in Milan in 1880 for £9,000. It was cleaned in 1949 and again in 2009, when discoloured varnish was removed.
It was assumed that the figures were by Leonardo and the landscape by his studio, but a new investigation has shown that the landscape is by the master, as well as almost all of the figures. The painting was recently reframed in an adapted Italian tabernacle frame of the period. The large panel painting is fragile and has never been lent.
The Virgin of the Rocks, 1486, Louvre, Paris
Leonardo’s first version of The Virgin of the Rocks, which has been in the French royal collection since 1625 (and the Louvre since 1830), has never been lent. It was Syson’s dream to bring it to London, to be reunited with Leonardo’s second version, but there were major conservation issues.
Louvre conservators agonised over the loan, but eventually decided that the large painting, which was transferred from panel to canvas in 1806, was fit to come to London. However, it will probably never be allowed to travel again. The National Gallery’s version, which is still on panel, is even more fragile, so this was the only way that the two versions could be brought together for study.
In return, the National Gallery has promised the Louvre The Leonardo Cartoon, 1499-1500, which it bought from the Royal Academy in 1962. Paper conservators recently examined the work and deemed it fit to travel. The preparatory drawing will be shown in Paris with the resulting painting, The Virgin and Christ Child with St Anne and John the Baptist, from 29 March to 25 June 2012.
“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, National Gallery, London, 9 November-5 February 2012, sponsored by Credit Suisse. Advance purchase is advisable (www.nationalgallery.org.uk)
“Leonardo: the Genius, the Myth”, Venaria Reale, Turin, 18 November-29 January 2012
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