After my first trip to London in February last year I was sure I would return. I was very disappointed that Leonardo da Vinci’s second version of The Virgin of the Rocks was not on display in the National Gallery because it was in the conservation studio. In July 2010, when I first read about a planned exhibition of Leonardo’s paintings due to open in late 2011, I knew why – the painting was being prepared for this exhibition.
I started planning to attend the exhibition, which is titled Leonardo da Vinci – painter at the court of Milan. I’ve bought an exhibition session ticket (every session is expected to sell out before it even opens), a flight and travel insurance. Whether I will see everything I want to see is another matter…
From the time it was announced this exhibition has been the subject of great interest and some controversy. I’m reading the international art news every day and am on the edge of my seat. Seriously. In his lifetime Leonardo was known to be frustrating, not finishing or delivering commissioned works, and he published nothing. In legend he continues to be elusive.
First, there was controversy and uncertainty about whether the star of the exhibition, Cecilia Gallerani or the Lady with an Ermine (above), would travel due to its fragility. In April this year it was confirmed that it’s going to Spain and Germany before England. Apparently a formal contract to confirm its inclusion in the National Gallery exhibition has not yet been signed. That makes me nervous, especially as despite using the image in its marketing the gallery does not list it as one of the works in the exhibition.
Second, the National Gallery has been embarrassed by a breach of security whereby a vandal recently damaged paintings with red paint. Cost cutting has reduced the number of security guards in the gallery. Not quite the environment for a priceless and irreplaceable work by the greatest artist of what I think is the most beautiful period of art history, the quattrocento. Should the National Gallery lose Cecilia I may be able to dash to Berlin in time to see it if session tickets are available.
Third, there seems to be conflict in Poland between the prince who owns the painting and the trust he set up to manage it. He sacked them all earlier this year. It seems he wants the painting to tour to earn money to pay for its conservation and this has been opposed by art experts due to the potential risk to the work.
Cecilia was stolen by the Nazis and nearly lost. It is wondrous that the painting has survived. You can read more about that in The Rape of Europa, which is a wonderful book. She may not travel again.
Remarkably, a painting has been newly authenticated as being by Leonardo and is a late inclusion in the exhibition. But nothing will make up for Cecilia. I’ll be devastated to travel half way around the world and not see her.
Update: a few hours after I published this post it was announced that the Louvre would send the earlier Virgin of the Rocks to London to be exhibited alongside its twin. See what I mean about the nature of this exhibition changing from day to day?
I’ve seen Lucrezia Crivelli or La belle ferronnière (above) in the Louvre already, and I most want to see Cecilia and the Virgin, which I missed out on last time. For me the first version in the Louvre is superior, but I’m on a mission to see every Leonardo work on public display. I’ve seen all the works normally on display in France and Italy, and with this exhibition I will hopefully tick off England, Russia and Poland.
Next time – Ginevra de Benci (below) – she’s all alone in Washington DC.