The Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence is home to The Adoration of the Magi (1423), considered the finest work of Gentile da Fabriano and an exemplar of early Renaissance painting. The main panel depicts the journey of the three wise men and their meeting with the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. They are surrounded by a procession of various exotic animals and figures dressed in rich brocades and golden ornaments. Only an art historian would know that one of the panels in the painting’s predella—the wooden base of the altarpiece—is, in fact, a modern replica. Napoleon took the original panel and scuttled off with it to France, where it still sits in a small side gallery in the Louvre.

Predella panels often depict a scene from the Nativity or the Madonna and Child, or they might tell the story of a saint, usually the one to whom the altarpiece or church is dedicated. To say that Italy is still angry at France over its missing panel (this one features the Presentation in the Temple) would be speculative at best, unnecessarily provocative at worst. But tensions between the two nations, with their differing views on everything from migration to domestic policy, continue to play out in arenas far from the political stage. A recent dispute between Paris and Rome over Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy has renewed discussions about national heritage and the influence policymakers wield over cultural institutions. Museums have long served as sites of “soft power”; the question, though, is whether their responsibility lies chiefly in promoting global discourse or in preserving national interest.  

The year 2019 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s death in Amboise, a small town on the banks of the Loire River. France may be the final resting place of history’s most famous polymath, but Italy understandably stakes an outsized claim to Leonardo’s cultural heritage. In 2017, Italian museums agreed to lend the Louvre several prominent artworks by Leonardo. In exchange, the Louvre would send works by Raphael to Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale for an exhibition in 2020 marking yet another milestone: the five-hundredth anniversary of that master’s death.

Tensions between the two governments—over corporate takeovers, Brexit, economic nationalism, the gilets jaunes protests, and the like—have been steadily mounting since a new populist governing coalition came to power in Italy in June 2018. (The coalition includes the right-wing Northern League and the left-wing Five Star Movement.) The question of Leonardo’s patrimony became yet another point of contention for the French and the Italians—one further complicated by the fact that European galleries can only lend or borrow works of art with a cultural minister’s approval. A feud erupted last November when Lucia Borgonzoni, the undersecretary for the Italian culture minister, abruptly demanded a renegotiation of the deal. Suddenly, a monumental retrospective three years in the making was called into question. “Leonardo only died in France,” she remarked to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, insisting that the Louvre’s blockbuster exhibition would “put Italy on the margins of a major cultural event.” It seems that France, which houses nearly a third of Leonardo’s surviving artworks, made arrangements with one government, only to have them called into question by another. 

Hoping to keep pace with the Louvre, Italy has prepared exhibitions on Leonardo at its smaller museums—the Galleria Nazionale in Parma and Milan’s Castello Sforzesco Museum, for example. France, for its part, maintains a legitimate desire to uphold its connection to Leonardo, and has made no effort to halt preparations for its October exhibition. The Louvre’s retrospective will feature several of Leonardo’s works never before shown in the same space, including the first version of The Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86), La Belle Ferronnière (1495-99), and St. John the Baptist (1513-1516). The Mona Lisa (1503-19) will remain in its usual gallery.

Despite the controversy, exhibitions across Europe celebrating the quincentenary emphasize Leonardo’s universal appeal. At the Chateâu du Clos Lucé in Amboise, where Leonardo spent the last years of his life, several loans from Italy are already on display; especially notable among these is the tapestry reproduction (1515) of his Last Supper mural (1495-98), stationed outside the Vatican for the first time since it arrived there in 1533. Leonardo is believed to have worked on many of the other pieces shown at the Château while he was living there. Perhaps in recognition that this creative period was but one chapter in a sprawling geographical narrative, the curators at Clos Lucé invited both President Emanuel Macron of France and President Sergio Mattarella of Italy to mark the exact anniversary of Leonardo’s death, on May 2, 2019. “The presidents had a working lunch and an official state visit, but this was also a way to show that Leonardo’s character is universal,” said Catherine Simon, the museum’s Deputy Director. “They came to Clos Lucé together to prove that his patrimony is for everyone.”

Although the two nations seem to have arrived at some sort of a compromise regarding their respective celebrations, discussions are ongoing. Louvre representatives declined to comment, except to note that the museum was still in talks with Italy’s cultural minister about the agreed-upon loans for its Leonardo exhibition. In addition to those already mentioned, Italy has planned several exhibitions of its own: shows on Leonardo’s drawings at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin and at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, for instance, as well as a display of tapestries in Milan’s Royal Palace this fall. While it’s impossible to say for certain whether these initiatives stemmed from the French–Italian rivalry, Italy has certainly ramped up celebrations in recent months.

Often seen as symbols of their respective countries, museums are uniquely positioned to promote national treasures—or even calm diplomatic scuffles—but they must also take into account the more practical challenges of exhibiting borrowed artwork. Cost, conservation, and timing can outweigh any sense of local obligation; after all, transporting paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other objets d’art is no easy feat.  “Many of Leonardo’s works are painted on large panels, and to move them is risky,” says Pietro C. Marani, the Professor of Art History at the University of Milan. “For this reason, they sometimes need to be kept in their home museums.” Marani has a unique perspective on the matter, since he has worked on Leonardo exhibitions in both France and Italy: he wrote catalogue entries for the Louvre’s upcoming retrospective and curated an exhibition on Leonardo’s Donna Scapigliata (1500-05) at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Parma.

But while logistics may be partly to blame, the dispute over the paintings in question is arguably grounded in competing bids for Leonardo’s legacy. “Certain objects aren’t lent because of their condition,” says Doralynn Pines, the retired Associate Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “But museums sometimes use condition as an excuse.” Pines earned her doctorate in Italian Renaissance Art History, and she is also versed in the complex, nuanced, and often costly negotiations that go into any large exhibition. On the subject of Leonardo’s nationality, she is resolute: “I certainly consider him Italian.”

A tinkerer with an interest in horses’ feet, crabs, diving bells, and mechanical wings, an acclaimed painter famed for his unparalleled skill in sfumato, linear perspective, and emotional expressionism, Leonardo da Vinci possessed great genius that still defies categorization. The surviving pages of his notebooks reveal the most eclectic and brilliant of minds: he wrote and drew on subjects as varied as anatomy, cartography, optics, physics, and flight, scribbling in his famous left-hand mirrored script and often darting from subject to subject on a single page. From the small town in Tuscany where he was born, to the royal courts of Amboise where he died, this great thinker in many ways transcended the bounds of geography and of his time. “Leonardo is a universal treasure,” affirms Marani. “He has no nation.”

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