Leonardo da Vinci is a gold mine.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is “The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne,” Leonardo’s last, unfinished masterpiece from the Paris museum’s own holdings.
This painting has been freshly restored, not without controversy: Two experts resigned from the advisory committee supervising the restoration. Although they kept mum in public, it has been assumed that they found the cleaning too aggressive.
The museum disagrees: “The very gentle cleaning,” a wall text says, “has revealed a painting of vivid and cold hues and has brought the splendid lapis lazuli blue and purplish red back to life.”
Depending on your taste, you’ll either miss the hazy warmth of old or admire the fresh colors.
Leonardo’s picture is surrounded by about 130 works -- sketches and drawings from the master’s hand, paintings and sculptures by Raphael, Michelangelo, Pontormo and other artists who were inspired by it.
The most relevant piece is the so-called Burlington House Cartoon, a huge charcoal drawing by Leonardo on loan from the U.K. National Gallery. It depicts Saint Anne, her daughter the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus in a different posture: Instead of stroking a lamb, Jesus reaches out for another child, young Saint John the Baptist.
The history of the painting is no less enigmatic than Saint Anne’s smile, which recalls the Mona Lisa. Giorgio Vasari, the art historian, wrote that Leonardo exhibited a sketch of the scene at a Florentine convent yet never got around to executing it in oil.
This could only mean that the painting was by somebody else, a conclusion seemingly corroborated by the fact that, when it was first cataloged, it was in Paris, not at the Chateau de Fontainebleau, residence of Leonardo’s patron, King Francois I.
Only in 1876, when the diary of Antonio de Beatis, secretary to a traveling cardinal, came to light, did the doubts vanish: In 1517, during a visit to Amboise, where Leonardo spent the last years of his life, he had shown his guests three paintings, including “Saint Anne.”
A recently discovered note by Agostino Vespucci, a Florentine chancellery official and cousin of the explorer, revealed that the notoriously slow Leonardo already had been working on the painting in 1503.
One of the many studio works in the show is a copy of the Mona Lisa from the Prado. Recent research has corrected the received wisdom that ascribed it to a later period. It now turns out that the copy was painted at the same time as the original.
The assistant -- perhaps Leonardo’s lover Salai (Gian Giacomo Caprotti), who also painted a nude version of the Mona Lisa -- seems to have finished it even before the master. Some details in the background were later modified on the original.
The show closes with a book, the French edition of Sigmund Freud’s essay “Leonardo da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood.” Analyzing “Saint Anne,” Freud thought he had discovered a hidden image in Mary’s garment -- the same bird, he said, that, in the child’s dreams, opened his lips with its tail, a sure sign of homosexuality.
“Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Masterpiece,” which is supported by Salvatore Ferragamo Italia SpA, opens today at the Louvre and runs through June 25. Information: http://www.louvre.fr or +33-1-4020-5317.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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