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Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: Fragments and Sketches of a European Destiny

Three Questions to Dominique Moïsi

Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: Fragments and Sketches of a European Destiny
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

This autumn, the Louvre is hosting an exceptional exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci five hundred years after his death. Our Special Advisor Dominique Moïsi analyses his extraordinary and symbolic scope - at the crossroad of geopolitics and art.

European, universal, universalist... these are recurrent words when mentioning the figure of Leonardo da Vinci. What would his current geopolitical significance be and what can it teach us about ourselves?

This exhibition is a testament of France’s cultural soft power. The Louvre will be hosting the most important exhibition ever made on an Italian man, and it will be a landmark. Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly Italian, but above all European. He was a great European before his time. In this respect, one is struck by this contrast between the artist's universal and European character and the quarrels that marked the genesis of the exhibition. The Italians fought to preserve certain works on their territory, reflecting the rise of an anti-French and almost certainly anti-European nationalism in Italy crystallized around the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, seen as exclusively Italian, and evidently not French. To which France’s rebuttal could be that Leonardo da Vinci died on French territory with, according to the myth, King Francis I of France himself at his bedside. The message of universal openness conveyed by the personality of Leonardo da Vinci, who was a writer, painter and scientist all at the same time, thus violently collided with today’s reality of international relations.

The Franco-Italian dispute you mentioned has not failed to attract notice. How do you view these tensions and their resolution?

This dispute revealed the remaining fragility of the Franco-Italian relationship. What I see in it, with regard to the Italians' relationship to the French, is a superiority complex coupled with an inferiority one. First of all, a superiority that is inherent to the century-old Italian culture, initially Roman, a culture of refinement, of civilization.

Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly Italian, but above all European.

It was not until the 16th century that France left the Middle Ages, and only did so through imitating Italy. Inferiority in turn, because France has existed as a state long before Italy, since the latter was only a geographical expression until the end of the 19th century. Franco-Italian history is not without its pains; let us not forget that Napoleon did not think twice before drawing from Italy's artistic heritage to enrich the Louvre, his musée Napoléon.

The Franco-Italian relationship has always experienced ups and downs. We are currently experiencing a rather "down" period, which undoubtedly reflects somewhat of a crisis in European identity. The Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre could have been Franco-Italian! The two countries would have convened to offer the public an event promoting the great European and the Renaissance man that da Vinci was. This was entirely conceivable. In this respect, this exhibition may be tainted with a feeling of missed opportunity. The nationalist pressures that Italy has been expressing with regards to this emblematic figure echo a tendency towards self-assertion that is characteristic of nations in crisis of self-confidence, or even crisis of identity. The five hundred years since Leonardo da Vinci's death could have been a European year. In this circumstance, there were first unfortunate remarks by the French President and regrettable French actions in Libya, followed by an overreaction from the Italians. We are probably paying the price for these shared diplomatic mistakes.

In your eyes, what is grandiose about Leonardo da Vinci's work? Why does it bear such significance?

Leonardo da Vinci is the embodiment of modernity and his work, a picture of his multiplicity. Let us consider some of his drawings, which make him a true inventor of war machines, the mystery that emerges from his portraits, or even the fascinating rarity of his painted work: twenty canvases! Rembrandt, Goya have left humanity with a vast collection of paintings. Even Vermeer, less prolific, has offered us more than Leonardo da Vinci. But there is something else in the da Vinci work. A perpetual movement, away from frozen paintings, and one that raises questions. An irony in the Mona Lisa, a form of enigmatic mistrust in La belle ferronnière, a propensity to grasp the essence of what humanity is, drawings that are sometimes tender, elsewhere sensual, an extraordinary taste for details, the formidable modernity of his gaze, an unequalled ability to render the drape of a fabric, the practically photographic nature of some of his creations, reflecting his knowledge of anatomy...

On this last point, Leonardo da Vinci also symbolizes the beginning of scientific modernity that the Renaissance sketches, a bridge standing between the classical world and modernity. This is what makes him unique.

Leonardo da Vinci [...] errs on the side of creative mystery. Few have gone that far.

Emil Cioran once wrote: "If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it is certainly God". He could have written that God owed everything to Leonardo da Vinci, in the way that the artist knew how to restore humanity’s splendour. His modernity, his propensity to the universal appears to be antithetic with the specialization that is characteristic of our time, especially at a time when the question of artificial intelligence is posed, an artificial intelligence capable of solving enigmas or even beating humans to chess. Leonardo da Vinci, on the other hand, errs on the side of creative mystery. Few have gone that far. The other genius of this era, if I may say so, would be Michelangelo. But if Leonardo da Vinci is to painting and drawing what Bach is to music, Michelangelo is "only" a Beethoven.


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