Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: Feting the 500th Anniversary of Artist’s Death

(Last Updated On: January 3, 2020)
Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronnière © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado
Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronnière © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado

2019 marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death in Amboise, France– where the Italian artist and inventor is buried to this day. To commemorate this landmark date, the Louvre Museum in Paris is staging what might be the world’s most important retrospective on the Florentine artist’s work and legacy.

Opening on October 24th and running through late February, 2020, the Leonardo da Vinci show comprises over 140 works from the Renaissance master, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, dense notebooks, manuscripts and art objects.

These include the Louvre’s own collection of five paintings and 22 drawings, as well as works of art on loan from numerous important collections– from New York’s Metropolitan Museum to the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice and London’s British Museum.

The Mona Lisa, however, remains in its current exhibition room at the Louvre, separate from the main show. A special virtual reality-boosted installation on the painting will run as part of the exhibit (see more by scrolling below).

Related: First Time in Paris? These are the Top 10 Things to Do

Keep reading to learn more about the show, advice on booking tickets and making the most of it.

Highlights at the Show

Leonardo da Vinci, "Madonna and Saint Anne", circa 1503. Public domain. One of the paintings held at the Louvre Museum, Paris
Leonardo da Vinci, “Madonna and Saint Anne”, circa 1503. Public domain

The show takes an innovative approach to an artist whose work has too often been considered in an outdated, stodgy and overly conservative light.

It brings new scientific methods and analysis to bear on the history and conservation of masterpieces such as Madonna and Saint Anne (Leonardo’s last well-preserved painting and considered by many critics to be his crowning achievement), La Belle Ferronnière, and Saint John the Baptist.

This, the curators explain, is meant to give visitors a better understanding of Leonardo’s distinctive artistic practices and pictorial techniques.

Organized chronologically, the exhibit traces the Florentine painter and inventor’s life and work as he travels to various places, lending rare insight into the great mind of the artist.

It promises to offer an unusually intimate look at a man who has been elevated to myth– showing his human and artistic processes in a way that has rarely been achieved.

It also sheds shed light on Leonardo’s uncanny modernity– his innovative techniques and perspectives that would foresee, in many ways, those that were to come.

Biographical Overview

The show offers a biographical overview of Leonardo’s life and artistic evolution. It traces his birth in the Italian town of Vinci (close to Florence), apprenticeship under sculptor Andrea des Verrocchio, and move to Milan as a young artist, where he produced early and important works including Virgin of the Rocks and the Last Supper.

It then explores his years in Florence, where masterpieces including Saint Anne and the Mona Lisa were produced during the early 16th century, and his latter years in Milan, Rome, and Amboise, France, in the Loire Valley. It was there he would spend the last years of his life on the invitation of King Francois I, residing in the Chateau du Clos Lucé.

“Light, Shade, Relief”

This section highlights Leonardo’s early Florentine period and his years as an apprentice to one of the 15th century’s lauded Italian sculptors.

While working in Verrocchio’s workshop, he gained deep knowledge of form, movement, and the use of light and shade (chiaroscuro in artistic terminology).

His early Drapery Studies, consisting of painted linen figures overlaid on clay, are partly informed by Verrocchio’s studies for the figures of Christ and Saint Thomas.

Other important works from this early, formative period include The Annunciation, Madonna of the Carnation and the Portrait of Ginevra, and mark Leonardo’s transition from sculpture to painting as a primary medium.

Study for Madonna With the Fruit Bowl, circa 1478, Milan.

This section of the exhibit shows a Leonardo coming into his own as an artist, exploring new artistic paths and techniques from around 1478.

He began applying a radical compositional technique he referred to as “intuitive composition” to convey natural figural movements– producing masterpieces such as The Madonna of the Cat and the Madonna with a Fruit Bowl.

Paintings such as The Adoration of the Magi show an even more dynamic sense of movement, light and shadow.

La Belle Ferronnière, a portrait that’s arguably even more arresting and beautiful than the more famous Mona Lisa, dates to the period when Leonardo moved to Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Manuscrit B", Insitut de France
Leonardo da Vinci, “Manuscrit B”, Insitut de France

In this section, Leonardo’s formidable achievements as a scientific mind and inventor come to startling new life.

Studies, notebooks filled with ideas and drawings for inventions as well as experimental data and theories, make up this fascinating section. Da Vinci’s theories on natural philosophy, anatomy and other scientific topics are intimately unveiled.

One manuscript that’s inspiring enormous excitement among some? “Manuscript B”, lent to the Louvre from the Institut de France, and featuring futuristic drawings of helicopters, flying-saucer-like objects, and other marvels imagined by Leonardo.

Da Vinci, "Saint John the Baptist", 1513-1516, oil on walnut, Louvre Museum
Da Vinci, “Saint John the Baptist”, 1513-1516, oil on walnut, Louvre Museum

Leonardo’s mature period as a painter is the subject of this section. It explores his transition to the use of oils, as well his application of scientific and anatomical principles to techniques of painting that aim to express “divine science”.

During these years of deep scientific and human inquiry, the Florentine master painted masterpieces including the Last SupperSaint Anne, the Mona Lisa, The Battle of AnghiariSalvator Mundi and Saint John the Baptist. Many critics credit the artist with ushering in modern painting, tout court.

Virtual Experience of the Mona Lisa: “Beyond the Glass”
Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass, is an augmented-reality exhibit at the Louvre in Paris
Image credit: HTC Vive Arts

Parallel to the main exhibition space, the Louvre is presenting the iconic Mona Lisa in a whole new way as part of the commemorative show.

Called Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass, the installation in the Hall Napoléon uses virtual-reality elements to tell the story of the mysterious painting’s creation.

Developed by technology group Emissive in collaboration with the Louvre’s own curatorial team, the VR experience has visitors wear a dedicated headset to experience the painting and its visual details in ways that are inaccessible to the naked eye.

It also draws on scientific research to explore the genesis of the painting and Leonardo’s painstaking process of creation– unveiling as never before the secrets behind the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Related: Review of the Atelier des Lumières, Paris’ First All-Digital Museum

For those who can’t make it to the show in person, the VR experience is also available online via the Viveport App (from October 24th, 2019).

Buying Tickets & Practical Info

This show is expected to sell out very quickly, and to limit crowds, the Louvre is requiring visitors to book dedicated timeslots.

I recommend that you book as soon as possible to avoid disappointment– especially since there are a limited number of available entries. Visit this page at the official Louvre website to buy tickets.

  • Exhibit dates: October 24th, 2019 through February 24th, 2020
  • Location: Musée du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris
  • Metro: Palais Royal/Musée du Louvre (Line 1)
  • Tel: +33 1 40 20 50 50
  • Ticket prices: 17 Euros (adults) — includes entry to the Louvre’s permanent collection

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