For Italy’s populists, even Leonardo da Vinci is a nationalist cause
In a small showroom filled with replicas of Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces, Lucia Borgonzoni, Italy’s undersecretary for culture and a member of the right-wing League party, attested to the authenticity of her disgust with the French.
She accused France of trying to culturally appropriate Leonardo for a 2019 exhibition at the Louvre celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death. And that was just the beginning.
France had treated Italy with “a lack of respect” and like a cultural “supermarket” by “sending a shopping list” of the works it wanted to borrow – essentially everything.
“Probably no other country would dare” to behave as France had, she said, warming to the topic as she faced a fake Mona Lisa in the Leonardo da Vinci Experience museum near the Vatican. She perused reproductions of Vitruvian Man and the Annunciation. “Let’s give them these,” she said with a laugh.
Not much has been off limits as Borgonzoni’s hard-right League party pushes its “Italians First” agenda. Italianwomen are encouraged to have more babies. Migrants are shown the door. Matteo Salvini, the party leader, fills his social media feeds with posts about Italian pasta and wine.
Nationalism – taboo for half a century following World War II and the fall of Mussolini – is suddenly in, as every possible political dispute is cast in chauvinist hues. Culture had long been a relatively neutral terrain. Not anymore. And deliberately so.
“Being from the League, it’s our way of seeing the country, the society and the world,” Borgonzoni said of the party’s Italians First playbook.
When it comes to Leonardo, the result is either an inelegant and amateurish faux pas, as her critics contend, or a political masterstroke before European Parliament elections in May. Either way, Borgonzoni has helped her party escalate tensions with France atamoment when Europe is already undergoing a dramatic political realignment.
Along with the bureaucrats in Brussels, pro-European French President Emmanuel Macron has been the target par excellence of an Italian populist government that has repeatedly picked, and won, political fights on everything from migration to trade.
“Surely our states are having amoment, not only in culture, of friction,” said Borgonzoni, the granddaughter of an Italian painter who worked briefly as an artist and interior designer. “Surely the fact that Europe is going to vote next year has raised the tension” on a range of issues including, now, Leonardo.
Born in 1452 outside Vinci, centuries before the creation of the Italian state, Leonardo grew up in Florence, lived in Milan and stopped off in Rome before moving to France, where he died and was buried. King Francis I of France acquired the Mona Lisa from one of his heirs and it hangs in the Louvre, which has more Leonardo paintings than any other museum.
In exchange for the “shopping list” of works it wanted from Italy, Borgonzoni said, the Louvre failed to make concrete offers for a Rome exhibit in 2020 commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael.
Lucia Borgonzoni, Italy’s undersecretary for culture, accuses France of trying to appropriate Leonardo for a 2019 exhibition at the Louvre celebrating the 500th anniversary of his death. And that was just the beginning.