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Louvre blockbuster: honouring Leonardo da Vinci 500 years on

Gina DOGGETT
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The Vitruvian Man drawing will travel to the exhibition despite fears over its fragility

The Vitruvian Man drawing will travel to the exhibition despite fears over its fragility (AFP Photo/Gabriel BOUYS)

Paris (AFP) - A blockbuster retrospective of Leonardo da Vinci opens Thursday at the Louvre museum to mark 500 years since the death of the Renaissance master in the historic town of Amboise, France.

Nearly 200,000 people have already reserved their place in line for the exhibition, the biggest ever organised to showcase the Tuscan polymath's indelible contributions to humanity -- with an emphasis on his painting.

A decade in the planning, the show simply titled "Leonardo da Vinci" groups 162 works, including 24 drawings loaned by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain from the Royal Collection.

The British Museum, the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg and the Vatican have also contributed, as well as, of course, Italy -- after a sometimes acrimonious tug-of-war between Rome and Paris over the loans.

The exhibition in the Hall Napoleon features 11 of the fewer than 20 paintings definitively attributed to the Renaissance master, as well as drawings, manuscripts, sculptures and other objets d'art.

The show walks the visitor through the timeline of the master's peripatetic life under the tutelage of dukes, princes and kings, from Florence to Milan, Venice and Rome, and finally France, where he spent the last three years of his life.

- Two no-shows -

Two works are missing from the show, starting with the Mona Lisa.

Organisers decided the world's most famous painting should remain in the Louvre's Salle des Etats -- its normal home -- to help avoid overcrowding.

As it is, the masterpiece attracts nearly 30,000 people a day.

The Mona Lisa's ineffable smile will however beguile visitors in a virtual reality experience at the end of the Leonardo show, which runs until February 24.

The other notable no-show is the Salvator Mundi, the work that became the most expensive painting ever sold when it fetched $450 million (400 million euros) at a Christie’s auction in 2017.

Mystery now surrounds the painting -- whose authenticity is disputed by some experts -- as it has not been seen in public ever since the stunning sale.

Officially, it was to be displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi but an unveiling set for September 2018 was inexplicably postponed. The Louvre said the museum's request to borrow the work is still pending.

- The Vitruvian Man -

The final act in the row between Paris and Rome over Italy's contributions to the show came with a last-minute legal effort to halt the loan of the iconic Vitruvian Man drawing.

Last week an Italian court rejected a bid by an association advocating for the protection of Italy's heritage -- Italia Nostra (Our Italy) -- to block the loan of the work dating from the late 15th century, arguing that it was too fragile to travel.

A spat over Italy's contributions to the Louvre show erupted late last year when the new populist rulers in Rome took issue with the previous government's agreement with Paris.

Lucia Borgonzoni, the number two in Italy’s culture ministry and a member of the anti-immigration League party, argued that the accord was lopsided in favour of France.

At the height of the row, it appeared that Italy would cancel the accord altogether. It was finally resolved with Paris pledging to loan several Raphaels to Rome next year, the quincentenary of that artist's death.

The Vitruvian Man -- which Italian media say is insured for at least one billion euros -- joined the Louvre show with just days to spare before the opening. It will stay only eight weeks rather than the full four months.

The drawing, kept in a climate-controlled vault in the Accademia Gallery in Venice, is rarely displayed to the public.

The exhibition curated by the Louvre's Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, the heads of the museum's painting and graphic arts departments, includes infrared reflectographs that offer an insight into the master painter's techniques.