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

Last Updated on February 25, 2021

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The show takes an innovative approach to an artist whose work has too often been considered in an outdated, stodgy and overly conservative light.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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3 thoughts on “Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: Feting the 500th Anniversary of Artist’s Death

  1. Hi Courtney,
    I flew in from Auckland, New Zealand, just yesterday to see the Leonardo mega-retrospective. [ It doesn’t seem quite right to describe the works of the greatest artist in history as a ‘show’, or ‘an exhibition’]. I went today for the first of several visits, though after a shattering 27 hrs flight time in economy class, I couldn’t muster full concentration. A couple of points :
    1. The artist formerly known as ‘Leonardo’ before the Donald Trump of art history writing bastardised his name into an imaginary surname of ‘Da Vinci’, is STILL known as ‘Leonardo’. He was never known as ‘Da Vinci’ in his lifetime, or even afterwards. [ Vasari in his biography of the artists, for instance, referred to him as ‘Leonardo’.] Build that Wall between ‘Leonardo’ and Da Vinci! Lock him up! [ Dan Brown, for crimes against literary sentences, and Renaissance art history ].
    2. Publishers refer to his name as ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ out of convention, ie , the need for a surname for indexing and titling, but real art history writers refer to him as ‘Leonardo’.
    3. The two versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the one in the Edinburgh gallery, and the ‘private collection’ [ referred to in British scholarship as ‘Private Collection, New York’, are both attributed to the Louvre as by ‘Leonardo and workshop’. The privately held one looks stunningly beautiful for its lapis lazuli tinted background alpine fantasy and the robes– perhaps restored in the recent past. Scholarly conjecture hovers over which version was painted first, which has ‘more Leonardo’ etc. The infrared reflectograms show that both had underdrawings, which wouldn’t be the case of a workshop copy.
    4. The UK contributes the largest share of loans, with drawings largely from the Royal collection and the two codexes from the British library.

    This will probably be the greatest exhibition of a single artist that I will ever attend in my lifetime. Buying in advance eight timed tickets for this sublime retrospective over my fortnight’s stay, gave me time enough to reflect on the phenomenon of the mega-exhibition.
    France prides itself as a superpower in the domain of what, for ease of reference, is called ‘Western high culture’. Usually, the power of the nation-state is used in the field of culture to promote some national figure. Leonardo is one of the relatively few figures who burst such nationalistic boundaries.

    What may not have been evident to the casual public is the institutional power of the French state in its ability to call in favours [ what is known in a US political context as a ‘quid pro quo’ 🙂 ] for loans. With the numbers of autograph Leonardos and part-Leonardos somewhere in the teens, only France was able to mount this encyclopaedic survey, with the Louvre’s five great paintings, and the multiple small notebooks held by the College de France etc. Previously, the greatest Leonardo show of modern times was London’s National Gallery event of 2012. Without France’s critical core ( though the Louvre’s version of the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ was loaned ), the National Gallery’s Luke Syson subtitled their show as ‘Leonardo, painter at the court of Milan’. This amounted to a graceful acknowledgment of the limitations they had to work with.

    For the Louvre in 2019, the inability of the London version of the Virgin to travel and be seen beside its earlier counterpart was regrettable, but made next to no difference due to the presence of so many other totemic Leonardos. The same applied to the no-show of the ‘Salvator Mundi’, probably bought by the Saudi Crown Prince, and thought to either now be in storage in Switzerland or hanging in the Prince’s super yacht. Incidentally, the 2012 London show marked the first unveiling of that Salvator Mundi post-restoration. Controversially proclaimed by the National as a FULL autograph Leonardo, the Met NY’s Carmel Bambach, in her newly published 4 volume magnum opus on Leonardo [ Yale UP ] attributes what remains in this ruined painting to an assistant, Boltraffio. ( I think the Salvator looks quite close in terms of technical style and composition to Bernardino Luini’s ‘Christ among the Doctors’, at the London’s National. Compare how the robes over Christ’s left shoulder are painted in both.)

    What is the overriding impression left by the Louvre show about Leonardo’s achievement? Firstly, one has to agree with what the Louvre’s curators state about his working methods. Leonardo viewed painting as a slow distillation over a period of many years, ever refining one’s goals in the light of accumulating knowledge about the world, and how painting could capture aspects of viewable reality.

    I was left with the overriding feeling of having witnessed what could be achieved by a transcendental artistic genius, given the scientific limitations of that figure’s times. Leonardo predated Newton by more than a century. Hence we see how a mind came to grips with explaining natural phenomena– vision, optics, mechanics, fluid dynamics, etc — before the codification of mechanics and optics through modern calculus.
    Neither this Louvre show, nor the earlier exhibitions this year in London of Leonardo’s codexes [ largely seen again here at the Louvre ], gave explanations in the captions as to how Leonardo’s speculations erred from Newtonian mechanics. In the British Library show of the codexes, one caption mentioned this : ‘For Leonardo, the point was indivisible and occupied no space. Only when a point moves to become a line can it be said to exist. Motion is thus the most fundamental power for the creation of things. ‘Bodies are made of movement’.’

    Essentially, this is a pre-modern formulation of mechanics, one where the fundamental relationship between mass, energy and momentum is not recognised either at a qualitative or precise quantitative levels. It is no disrespect to Leonardo to acknowledge how close he came towards making the conceptual leaps towards understanding reality that Isaac Newton made, through the latter’s unique scientific genius. But there will neither be an art show ever mounted on Newton, nor will Newtonian physics and mathematics ever be venerated by the art world.

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