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.

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