Friday, 5 August 2011

How the New York Met Rained on Da Vinci’s Parade

The countdown has finally begun. In less than three months, one of the most anticipated exhibitions in the history of art will open its doors to an eager public.

When Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan finally goes on show on November 5th at the National Gallery, it will be the culmination of years of careful planning and delicate negotiations. Bringing together some of the finest paintings by the Renaissance master and his followers, this blockbuster exhibition will feature works on loan from, among others, The Lourve, The Vatican and The Hermitage in St Petersburg. Although this amount of international co-operation is by no means unprecedented, it is certainly the first time that so many Da Vinci masterpieces will be leaving their permanent homes to be displayed side by side.

Leonardo Da Vinci Self Portrait
However, the organisation of this ambitious project has not been entirely smooth sailing. In fact, even at this late stage, the owners of one of the exhibition’s highlights, Lady with an Ermine, are getting a serious case of cold feet. Fearful that the rigours of transportation, unforeseen accidents or changes in atmosphere will damage the fragile 15th century wood panel painting, the owners (the Polish Princes Czartoryski Foundation) are considering withdrawing the masterpiece from the exhibition. This course of action has received some support in Poland, with a number of leading scholars vehemently opposed to the painting’s removal.

And their fears are not entirely unfounded. Back in 1963, when on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Leonardo’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, fell victim to an accident that could have left it irrevocably damaged…

One morning, upon entering the secure storeroom where the Mona Lisa was kept prior to going on show, the museum’s curator was shocked to discover staff rushing around, wild-eyed and panicked, carrying armfuls of towels. It seemed, overnight, a faulty sprinkler had sprung a leak and had sprayed the painting with water for several HOURS before being discovered by officials! Although the painting had been under constant surveillance, the team of security guards failed to notice the spray of water on their grainy, black-and-white security monitors…

In ordinary circumstances, such water damage would have proved catastrophic. Thankfully, the Mona Lisa was shielded by a thick pane of glass which protected it from the liquidy onslaught. Once the water was mopped up, the Mona Lisa was fortunately none the worse for her little adventure. The exhibition went ahead as planned and her enigmatic smile was seen by over a million people over the course of a few weeks. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the New York Met worked hard to keep the mishap under wraps – the incident went unreported for over half a century!

Queues to see the Mona Lisa in '63
So, will the National Gallery succeed in securing Lady with an Ermine for their much-anticipated exhibition? Well, that remains to be seen. But one can’t help but feel that the Polish scholars have a point. Maybe we should try to disregard the hype and consider the wisdom of such an exhibition as this. With the plethora of dangers associated with such a project, do the risks outweigh the benefits? Is it really worth putting some of the world’s most valuable paintings in jeopardy for our viewing pleasure? Mona Lisa’s New York story should be a lesson to us all …

'Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' runs from Nov 9 to Feb 5 next year.
Viewing sessions are timed and tickets are available to pre-book only.

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