Leonardo, Revived: Daring To Touch A Da Vinci Masterpiece

Cinzia Pasquali had the honor of restoring Leonardo Da Vinci's prized oil painting "The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne," now featured at the Louvre. The assignment was 18 months fraught with nerves, in-fighting and endless int

Alberto Mattioli

PARIS - If ever you could touch a Leonardo, your hands were surely be shaking - not Cinzia Pasquali.

The Rome native is the restorer of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, a prized oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci, now the focus of a major exhibition at the Louvre sponsored by Ferragamo, running through June 25. For the first time, letters about Saint Anne, sketches, and 22 drawings from The Queen of England's collection have been gathered on display in the Louvre's Hall Napoléon. The show explores the influence of late 15th century painting on artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Odilon Redon and Max Ernst.

The exhibition is like a walk through Leonardo's studio with, at the end, the new St. Anne, which is the same as always... yet somehow changed. After years of studies and debates, the Paris museum decided to commission the restoration of the masterpiece, and selected Pasquali. On the canvas, behind this holy family with two mothers, a village has somehow appeared, the Virgin Mary's mantle is lapis lazuli blue, and her feet are dipping into water.

Pasquali put her hands on Leonardo's work, and rediscovered these previously lost details.

Why and how you were chosen for this job?
There was a contest, which is an unusual procedure, chosen by the Louvre museum and the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France. There were seven competitors, and, well, I won. It was July 2010.

What did you think?
At first, I thought I had misunderstood because they told me the news on the phone and the confirmation letter took a while to arrive. But when I knew for sure, I had to measure the responsibilities: I started to study everything that was known about this painting. Luckily, in 1994 some tests for a possible restoration -- which never took place -- had been done.

Then, you started to clean...
I used a new technique, a gel created by Paolo Cremonesi a professor of computer system architectures at Politecnico di Milano. We didn't want to completely erase all the paints that had overlapped through the centuries and oxidized, but to reduce them. A restoration must be reversible. Let's say that this Saint Anne will last for the next 50 to 70 years. Then, we'll see.

Of course, the issue was how much to reduce.
I have always worked under the control of an international scientific committee to which I submitted the different tests and which got together every two or three months. The debate between supporters of a lighter treatment and supporters of a deeper treatment was intense. At the end, as always happens, we reached a compromise.

But personally, what do you think?
I would have gone even deeper. But we decided to leave a good deal of what is, very improperly, called time's patina.

Nonetheless, there were controversies.
Two members of the committee resigned. One was against the restoration from the beginning, so it's not clear why he had chosen to take part in it. Another one was attached to Saint Anne as she had always known it.

After the cleaning, you repainted.
Don't even make that joke. I just plugged some small gaps, such as some holes made by bugs.

Are you more concerned of taking away or adding on?
For sure about taking away. If you take away one more layer, it is gone forever.

There were many surprises. What was the most moving?
Finding the marks of Leonardo's hands. Actually, his fingerprints. He spread the color with his fingertips. After all, I do the same.

For how long did you live together with Saint Anne?
For a year and a half, every day, from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. This painting was a great love, or indeed, an obsession. I dreamed of it at night.

Would you like to restore Mona Lisa?
Of course. And I'm sure there would be many surprises. Prado Museum's Mona Lisa is on display. It is a copy with more vivid and bright colors. I think that if we restored it, the real Mona Lisa would look more similar to the copy.

You put your hands where Leonardo put his. What's your take on him?
I think he was a huge neurotic. He never finished anything because he was always looking for something that eluded him. He chased an ideal so lofty it had to be elusive.

One last question. Now that the work is over, what do you feel?
Over all, I feel a huge admiration for Leonardo. He is a genius.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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