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Visual Arts

Da Vinci masterpiece leaving for Japan amid controversy

Christine Spolar
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

FLORENCE, Italy - In a city steeped in Renaissance intrigues, add a modern tale of political and artistic dispute: how and why a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci - deemed by many to be an essential draw of the Uffizi Gallery - is being flown halfway around the world to boost trade with Japan.

Uffizi Director Antonio Natali vowed to stay home Monday to protest the crating and removal of "The Annunciation," a 15th century work he argued for months was wrongly swept up in a government campaign for business and tourism.

Deep-pocketed donors who raise private cash for restorations have lamented the deal. Hundreds of Florentines have signed petitions to stop the trip. A senator from Florence - ignored in his monthslong quest for answers from the Culture Ministry and the Italian officials in Tokyo - said last week he'd retaliate with a bit of performance art Monday on moving day.

"I'm going out and buying a chain to lock myself up near the front door," said Sen. Paolo Amato.

The furor over the "The Annunciation," a stunning, 6-foot-wide depiction by a young da Vinci of the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, is part Italian histrionics and very much a serious debate over how to care for and share the country's cultural wealth.

A similar dispute flared last year over a proposed loan within Italy of a work by another Renaissance master, Andrea Mantegna.

Mantegna's "The Lamentation of the Dead Christ," at home at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, eventually traveled to Mantua, but only after edgy exchanges over the risks of travel and the benefit of sharing. A commission, still to be defined, was formed soon after to review how and when masterpieces can be loaned.

Critics who have sounded off about "The Annunciation" said they sincerely support loans, but they grimaced over the idea that the 500-year-old painting would be put at any risk, with virtually no discussion, to help market Italy.

"Why is this painting traveling so far and for an exhibition that is not focused on fine art?" Amato, the senator from Florence, said last week. "The Uffizi would never have dreamed of suggesting this. As far as I can see, `The Annunciation' is going to be used just as a luxury gadget."

The painting is part of an exposition called "Primavera Italiana 2007" or "Italian Spring 2007" that will be promoted in more than 200 locations in Japan to tout Italian technology, investment possibilities, fashion, textiles, wine, food and art. "The Annunciation" will be displayed at the National Museum in Tokyo for a show focused on "Leonardo's Genius."

The deal was apparently arranged by Italy's ambassador to Japan, Mario Bova, and Francesco Rutelli, the culture minister and former mayor of Rome. Museum officials in Florence last week said they were largely bypassed in discussing whether the painting should leave.

The only question directed to them, said museum officials from the Uffizi and others who supervise museums throughout Florence, was whether the painting was in good technical condition to be moved.

Neither Rutelli nor the Italian Embassy in Tokyo would discuss "The Annunciation" last week when queried. Rutelli's spokeswoman Daria Lucca said: "The minister has nothing to say about this. This is just being raised as a political game. ... I'm surprised you Americans would even be interested in this. We Italians, we have loads of art. They couldn't, of course, ask Americans for such art."

In Florence, the disagreement centers on the importance of "The Annunciation" to the Uffizi and whether the painting should ever leave its cream-colored halls. Art historians and curators debate the inherent risks of transport - the painting has been insured for $132 million - but they also are miffed that no one apparently viewed how the Uffizi would be affected.

Several authorities, including the director of the Uffizi, questioned whether Italy was violating its own law by sending the painting.

"The Annunciation," believed to have been painted from 1472-1475, has left the Uffizi only twice before, authorities said. In 1935, the work went to Milan for an exhibition; in 1939, it was lent to Paris.

But since 2004, Italian law forbids works of art deemed essential to the identity of any single museum to be loaned. Curators at the Uffizi said that "The Annunciation," one of three da Vinci paintings at the Uffizi and the only finished one there, clearly fits that description.

Cristina Acidini, who heads the Polo Museale Fiorentino, which oversees all Florence museums, said there was no discussion about the importance of "The Annunciation" to the Uffizi's integrity.

"From the beginning, it was a political decision. I would have liked to discuss the benefits and costs that are not necessarily related to money. ... But they asked me if it is in good condition. Based on the condition, it can go," Acidini said.

Natali, the Uffizi director, said that he, and others, could not see how the Italian art world would benefit from the loan and wondered how the ministers looked past the law or the opinions of the people who know the painting best.

"The law says if there is a masterpiece that is very important to an artistic center, the work is not to go. If `The Annunciation' isn't an important part of this collection, what is?" said Natali, who has written three books on the painting.

Natali said he planned to skip work Monday but he would likely hover nearby as `The Annunciation' is carefully carted away. For the trip to Japan, the painting, a tempera on wood, will be encased in a crystal case and then enclosed in a wooden box.

The painting will be driven under heavy security to Rome, from where it will be flown to Tokyo. Two technical experts from the Uffizi will travel with the painting, Natali said.

Still, all the precautions mean little if something goes terribly wrong, he said. "If it gets lost, what will we do?" Natali said. "The insurance money won't be able to buy enough hankies to dry all our tears."

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