ENI, vidi, Vinci

Léonard de Vinci (1452-1519)
Saint John the Baptist
Oil on panel - 69 x 57 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Wikimedia Commons
Licence GNU Free Documentation License

ENI, an Italian firm, is one of the world’s largest petroleum companies. Its turnover in 2008 totaled 108 billion euros resulting in profits of 8.8 billion. ENI, thus has money, lots of it, which it uses at times as an arts patron. Thus the Louvre received aid for its exhibitions on Mantegna and the one currently showing under the pyramid, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese. Rivalry in Venice. Both exhibitions were extremely successful. It will also finance a retrospective highlighting Raphael’s last years in 2012.

Under ENI’s logistical and financial sponsorship, the Louvre is sending one of its most important paintings, Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci, for a month, from 27 November to 27 December. The work will be presented in an “exhibition” modestly entitled (our translation) : Leonardo in Milan. Extraordinary exhibition of Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci. From the Louvre to the Palazzo Marino [1].

The Département des peintures at the Louvre, as stated by its director Vincent Pomarède, explained to us that this is “a cycle of pedagogical special-study exhibitions launched last year by the city of Milan and supported by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Affairs”. The principle is to present an important work of Italian art for free to the public. Last year, The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio had been presented as part of the same cycle. This was, indeed, the case but it is important to add that the latter belongs to a private collection, therefore rarely seen by the public and that it cannot thus be compared to the Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo.

Vincent Pomarède adds further that : “the catalogue published for the occasion is a very scholarly work written, among others by Professor Marini, one of the greatest Leonardo da Vinci specialists, and was coordinated by Vincent Delieuvin, curator of the department in charge of 16th century Italian painting.” We do not in any way doubt the book’s interest. On the other hand, we protest against the need to move such an important painting by itself, without any purpose, even if it is accompanied by “a very complete pedagogical apparatus (films, digital references, catalogue, children’s book, constant presence of about twenty assistants or lecturers, etc)”. We find the argument of free entrance for the public, clearly emphasized and virtuously presented, paradoxical as the director of the Louvre is against it for his museum (in our opinion, correctly so).

What seems to be a press release can be found in the Italian press saying : “the scholarly purpose of this exhibition is to display the Saint John the Baptist in optimal conditions of space and lighting” [2]. We cannot help but point out the reasons for this show. If I were the Louvre, I would not be very happy on hearing this explanation which implies that the painting is usually presented in poor conditons.

The Louvre adds again that : “following this event, the Musée du Louvre will initiate a cycle in 2010 of special-study exhibitions in conjunction with the Pinacoteca della Brera in Milan, during which certain Italian and French works from our collection and those of the Brera will be presented over a period of three years”. It concludes by saying that this partnership is part of a larger project which will include agreements with the cities of Brescia, Rome and Milan for the organization of several exhibitions.

This is perhaps true. The fact remains that there is no way of justifying the transport of only one work by Leonardo, without any real context. This operation is ultimately a minor version, for Italy, of the one when the Mona Lisa was sent to Japan by André Malraux. The Saint John the Baptist, unlike the former or Saint Ann, is not a particularly fragile work. But such a valuable painting should not be moved except for very good reasons, and even so… Its month-long absence will not deprive visitors to the Louvre for too long but this short period is in itself absurd. A serious exhibition never lasts only one month. The place also presents serious problems as the Palazzo Marino is not a museum : this is Milan City Hall.

We have already discussed this before : cultural patronage is a wonderful thing as long as it respects certain rules. A patron should not interfere in scholarly aspects nor should he impose anything which runs contrary to normal museum practices. Is the Saint John the Baptist being sent to Milan strictly, as stated by the Louvre, as a result of the scholarly partnership between the museum and several Italian cities, or rather the result of negotiations with a sponsor who wishes more from its investment than just seeing its name on a poster or on a French catalogue ? The question is well worth asking.

Although the Louvre answered our questions, the fact remains that its discretion in speaking openly about this type of operation is surprising. No one in France was aware of this “loan” which has been publicized extensively in the Italian media. And yet, when there is nothing to be ashamed about, why hide it ?

Version française

Didier Rykner, jeudi 3 décembre 2009


[1] “Leonardo a Milano. Esposizione straordinaria del San Giovanni Battista di Leonardo da Vinci. Dal Louvre a Palazzo Marino.”

[2] “Il proposito scientifico di questa mostra è quella di esporre il San Giovanni Battista in condizioni ottimali di approfondimento, di spazio e di illuminazione.”

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