The Leonardo Exhibition at the Louvre in Paris

On my way home from my Paris trip with Rosie last October I noticed that a special exhibition of the works of Leonardo da Vinci was opening at the Louvre on that very day. It wasn’t long before I was pestering my friend Chris about a special trip for our shared birthdays sometime towards the bottom of the year. Clearly the Interrail trip took precedent and, apart from the odd email reminder, I let the matter slip while various other European capital cities vied for my attention. This may have been a mistake because by the time I got back the show was completely sold out.

I was commiserating with Chris and pointed out that as we had not shared a trip to our old haunts in Paris for nearly ten years, perhaps we should take the trip anyway? There are plenty of other masterworks on view in the City of Light, aren’t there? He demurred and then handed me a couple of printouts with a reproduction of La Belle Ferronniere in the corner: The Leonardo exhibition may have been fully booked up by now but he had bought the last two tickets weeks ago. We were on our way.

{as an aside, who exactly was La Belle Ferronniere? Colloquially translated, the name means “the ironmonger’s wife”. Just as in the case of La Gioconda or Dama con L’ermellino, considerable mythology built up during the centuries over the identity of this dignified beauty clad in the dress of the Milanese court. Was she a noblewoman or a courtesan? Why does her gaze display such lively intelligence compared to the bovine contemplation of her more famous cousin? It’s a delicious mystery worthy of a whole shelf of historical novels: she has been tentatively identified with several historical characters including the mistress of King Francis I but the epithet may simply refer to the distinctive type of jewel she wears on her forehead. Nor should we be surprised if several of the Master’s most accomplished paintings were of favoured concubines: they probably had more time on their hands to sit for portraits, their identities are more likely to have been lost to history and Leonardo himself was born out of wedlock}.

Ourt Eurostar trip was comfortable and, having both been the victims on previous occasions of the pickpockets in the Gare de Nord, it was reassuring to be able to buy our Metro tickets in the restaurant car before disembarking. The “shoulder surfers” working the queues on the concourses of the Grande Lignes seem to grow bolder every year. Our regular hotel has long since changed hands and is not quite as “budget” as it once was but it certainly feels good to step out of the station and cross the road straight into a familiar environment. My companion’s health is not what it was and, while he will no doubt inveigle me into driving him on many more trips to the continent, his Eurostar days are probably drawing to a close. That’s a roundabout way of saying that, Special Exhibition aside, this really had to be his trip to take in some of his favourite haunts at his pace.

First stop after depositing the luggage had to be Pigalle (or rather Blanche metro stop for the Pigalle district) and a visit to the Moulin Rouge. Chris has expended so much research on the artists and demi-mondaine of the Belle Epoch that he holds the very streets around the theatre in high esteem and he had chosen a local restaurant* for our early dinner. We weren’t going to be taking in the show this time but he insisted in popping into the theatre shop to see if they had anything comparable to the bronze Can-can dancer that he treasured so much from a previous visit. Well, I could see he was disappointed when the vendeuse could offer him nothing but a 200 Euro hand-printed silk scarf or an equally exorbitant fan made of scarlet marabou feathers so I indulged him with a limited edition collector’s Barbie doll. She came in a display box that can stand her beside her more elegant sister and, in addition to wearing an authentically flamboyant costume, she is at least a brunette.

Next morning we took our time breakfasting at our favourite brassiere, Au Bout en Train, before heading down to Tuileries metro stop on the Rue de Rivoli. It was too early for me to indulge in one of Angelina’s world famous patisseries but we soaked up the gilded and mirrored pastel coloured ambiance while I failed to resist the cream-laden Chocolat Africain (that’s hot chocolate to the rest of you). Then, before heading off to the Louvre I risked bankruptcy on two large boxes of cakes to be taken home**.

The Leonardo exhibition turned out to be definitely worthwhile if not transformative: it was too crowded to look at the many drawings in any comfort but an assembly most of his greatest paintings in one place gave me the opportunity to view them with a deeper understanding. Whatever the complexities of his humble beginnings, various apprenticeships, searches for patronage and distracted forays into science and engineering, he remains quintessentially a humane artist. His sitters gesture with a graceful delicacy that imbues conventional religious scenes with an unmatched informality and warmth. His Madonnas positively glow with maternal affection and his babies, far from being the ugly little old men of so many of his contemporaries, are infinitely cuddle-able. It may be a sign of my age since I don’t think I ever noticed before but his Saint Anne must be the most sublime image of grandmotherhood ever painted.

While awaiting our timed slot we took a quick detour into the Dinon wing to see the aforementioned Giaconda who had not been moved from her regular slot for this exhibition. Goodness, the lines to get up to a viewing position in front of her are long these days. Queuing barriers fill practically the whole of the long gallery and, unless you are desperately in need of a selfie, she may be better enjoyed in a poster from the well-stocked gift shop. We managed to get a quick side glimpse and, again it may be my age, but she seems to be wearing well and looks a little less dough faced and jowly than when I last saw her a couple of decades ago.

(* Les Co-pains de Montmartre = excellent and reasonably priced, the Bouf Bourguignon alone is worth travelling all the way to Paris for)

(** I left the cakes in the shop and returned for them after the show rather than risk the museum cloakroom. They travelled home well enough and Grahame was actually very pleased with his selection. However, I myself over-indulged on the new, pistachio version of the traditional Mont Blanc and a certain amount of gastric discomfort persisted to the following day)

Categories: Europe

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