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A missing painting, crowd trouble and an international spat . . . but Da Vinci exhibition is now set to open in Paris

A blockbuster retrospective of Leonardo da Vinci opens on Thursday at the Louvre museum to mark 500 years since the death of the Renaissance master in the historic town of Amboise, France.

A missing painting, crowd trouble and an international spat . . . but Da Vinci exhibition is now set to open in Paris
The Da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre opens on Thursday. All photos: AFP

Nearly 200,000 people have already reserved their place in line for the exhibition, the biggest ever organised to showcase the Tuscan polymath's indelible contributions to humanity – with an emphasis on his painting.

A decade in the planning, the show simply titled “Leonardo da Vinci” groups 162 works, including 24 drawings loaned by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain from the Royal Collection.


Mona Lisa, who attracts 30,000 people a day, will not be moving from her current home for the exhibition

The British Museum, the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg and the Vatican have also contributed, as well as, of course, Italy — after a sometimes acrimonious tug-of-war between Rome and Paris over the loans.

The exhibition in the Hall Napoleon features 11 of the 20 paintings definitively attributed to the Renaissance master, as well as drawings, manuscripts, sculptures and other objets d'art.

The show walks the visitor through the timeline of the master's peripatetic life under the tutelage of dukes, princes and kings, from Florence to Milan, Venice and Rome, and finally France, where he spent the last three years of his life.


Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the Salvator Mundi

Two notable no-shows – for different reasons

Two works are missing from the show, starting with the Mona Lisa.

Organisers decided the world's most famous painting should remain in the Louvre's Salle des Etats – her normal home – to help avoid overcrowding.

As it is, the masterpiece attracts nearly 30,000 people a day.

The Mona Lisa's ineffable smile will however beguile visitors in a virtual reality experience at the end of the Leonardo show, which runs until February 24th.

The other notable no-show is the Salvator Mundi, the work that became the most expensive painting ever sold when it fetched €400 million at a Christie's auction in 2017.

Mystery now surrounds the painting – whose authenticity is disputed by some experts – as it has not been seen in public ever since the stunning sale.

Officially, it was to be displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi but an unveiling set for September 2018 was inexplicably postponed. The Louvre said the museum's request to borrow the work is still pending.

READ ALSO Mystery of Salvator Mundi – the world's most costly painting


After a last-minute legal challenge, Vitruvian Man will now travel from Italy for the show

Late runner: The Vitruvian Man

The final act in the row between Paris and Rome over Italy's contributions to the show came with a last-minute legal effort to halt the loan of the iconic Vitruvian Man drawing.

Last week an Italian court rejected a bid by an association advocating for the protection of Italy's heritage – Italia Nostra (Our Italy) – to halt the loan of the work dating from the late 15th century, arguing that it was too fragile to travel.

A spat over Italy's contributions to the Louvre show erupted late last year when the new populist rulers in Rome took issue with the previous government's agreement with Paris.

Lucia Borgonzoni, the number two in Italy's culture ministry and a member of the anti-immigration League party, argued that the accord was lopsided in favour of France.

At the height of the row, it appeared that Italy would cancel the accord altogether. It was finally resolved with Paris pledging to loan several Raphaels to Rome next year, the quincentenary of that artist's death.

The Vitruvian Man – which Italian media say is insured for at least €1 billion – will join the Louvre show later this month, but only for a few weeks rather than the full four months.

The drawing, kept in a climate-controlled vault in the Accademia Gallery in Venice, is rarely displayed to the public.

The exhibition curated by the Louvre's Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank, the heads of the museum's painting and graphic arts departments, includes infrared reflectographs that offer an insight into the master painter's techniques.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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