With only 14 months to go before the official opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a stellar cast has been assembled for the fourth and final series of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art Series, which begins at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Wednesday night.
The speakers who will grace the seventh-month-long programme of lectures and events may include some of the world’s most illustrious art historians, a Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner and an Oscar-nominated, Bafta-winning film director; yet all of these are set to be upstaged by the announcement of an unprecedented and much-anticipated visit of a mysterious young lady from Milan.
Art historians disagree about the true identity of the enigmatic woman now known as La Belle Ferronniere, but her status as one of only a handful of undisputed portraits painted by Leonardo da Vinci – and as one of the great masterpieces of the High Renaissance – is beyond doubt.
Leonardo started very few paintings during his lifetime and completed even fewer and, although the number of solely painted works attributed to the master has changed throughout art history, what is certain is that La Belle Ferronniere is one of only five Leonardo paintings in the collection of the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
The portrait, in which a serious-looking young woman dressed in red velvet stares out at the viewer, will form part of the first batch of about 300 works sent on loan from more than a dozen cultural institutions in France to supplement the new permanent collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi when it opens in December next year.
The Leonardo loan, which will be with the Louvre Abu Dhabi for 12 months, involves several notable firsts.
Not only is it the first loan to be announced by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), Agence France-Museums and the Musee du Louvre, but it will also be the first time that La Belle Ferronniere has left Europe and the first time a painting by Leonardo will be exhibited in the Middle East.
“It’s very important to have a work by Leonardo for the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi,” explains Vincent Pomarede, the director of mediation and cultural programming for the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
“I think it’s very important to see one of the most beautiful portraits of the Renaissance because portraits are very important in the story of European art and they pose important aesthetic, political and social questions about their time.”
By the time La Belle Ferronniere arrives in Abu Dhabi it will have undergone a process of restoration. The portrait is set to appear at the 2015 Milan Expo before it arrives here, but it will only return to the city of its origin if the restoration process is completed in time. Mr Pomarede insists that the restoration team at the Louvre will not be rushed and that there is enough time for the Leonardo to reach Abu Dhabi on time and fully restored.
“For such an important painting it is very important for us to have time. The first [restoration] committee met last week and now we will restore the painting and take all the time we need [and then] we will be very proud to show the restored painting.”
Mr Pomarede will present the first of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art events on Wednesday night and will also feature in a panel discussion in November that features Louvre Abu Dhabi’s designer, the architect Jean Nouvel. The first lecture will focus on the mystery surrounding the woman now known as La Belle Ferroniere, Mr Pomarede says.
“We don’t know who the model in the painting is. We have several ideas, but it isn’t easy to be sure,” he explains. “La Belle Ferroniere is a modern title; it wasn’t used by Leonardo.”
Several theories have been put forward about the model's identity. The curators of Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, an exhibition held at the National Gallery in London in November 2011 when La Belle Ferroniere last appeared on loan, suggested that the portrait might be a highly idealised depiction of Beatrice d'Este (1475-1497), the wife of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo's patron throughout the 1480s and 1490s.
A different theory suggests that the word "ferroniere" applies to the jewel that adorns the woman's forehead, while another identifies the title with another of Leonardo's Milanese portraits, Lady with an Ermine (1489-1490), which is believed to depict Sforza's mistress, Cecilia Gallerani.
Experts agree that the painting was produced during one of the most important and prolific periods of Leonardo’s career, the 17 years he spent in Milan between 1482 and 1499 where he worked as court painter to Ludovico Sforza, the nobleman and warlord who eventually ruled the Milanese city state as Duke.
Not only was this the time when Leonardo painted what is widely regarded to be his masterpiece, The Last Supper (1495-1499), for the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, but thanks to Sforza's support it was also a period when he was able to conduct research into engineering, anatomy and the human body.
Between 1483 and 1487 the polymath produced designs for an early form of helicopter (described by Leonardo as an aerial screw), an armoured car, a deep-sea diving suit and a parachute.
The parachute design, discovered in one of Leonardo’s sketchbooks from 1483, was accompanied by a note: “If a man is provided with a length of gummed linen cloth with a length of 12 yards on each side and 12 yards high, he can jump from any great height whatsoever without injury.”
In 2000, Leonardo’s theory was proved correct by a British skydiver who used an exact replica of the design in a jump from a hot-air balloon at 10,000 feet. The parachutist, Adrian Nicholas, successfully descended 8,000 feet using Leonardo’s invention before using a modern parachute for the final 2,000 feet.
One of Nicholas’s technical advisers for the Leonardo parachute jump was Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, and one of the world’s foremost experts on Leonardo da Vinci.
Curiously, Prof Kemp is taking part in the third lecture of the forthcoming series,in March, but he is coming to Abu Dhabi not to talk about Leonardo but to discuss the relationship between religion and light in a conversation inspired by another of the Musee du Louvre’s forthcoming loans, a 14th-century mosque lamp.
For Prof Kemp, a concern with light and with optics is one of the fundamental issues that links medieval Islamic science and later European art, which makes it a fitting topic for a universalist museum, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, that will seek to emphasise the connections between cultures.
“My view is that there are big, heavy continuities between human cultures,” the English art historian explains.
“We obviously spend a lot of time defining cultural differences, but light, for clear scientific and biological reasons has always been seen as an expression of the presence of the divine.
“I’m interested in the shared nature of humanity, our mental equipment and our proclivities which, given the schisms in the world at the moment is not the most obvious thing to think about, but I do have this very deep sense of our underlying shared humanity and unless that is there and we can have a dialogue ... then I think we’re in dead trouble.”
That sense of dialogue, between individuals, the arts and different cultures, infuses all of the talks in the final Louvre Abu Dhabi Talking Art series, but nowhere is it more eloquently expressed than in the talk and the screening that is being hosted by the American filmmaker, James Ivory.
Rather than discussing a loan, however, the 86-year-old Ivory is coming to Abu Dhabi for the first time in January next year to discuss his own, very personal contribution to the Saadiyat project.
In 2011, Ivory sold 99 Indian miniature paintings from his personal collection to Louvre Abu Dhabi, where they will now form part of the museum’s permanent collection.
The bulk of Ivory's collection was acquired during the early stages of the filmmaker's career when he spent long periods in India making films such as The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Bombay Talkie (1970).
Part of Merchant Ivory Productions, the longest-running partnership in the history of independent cinema, Ivory worked as a director with the Indian film producer, Ismail Merchant, and the Polish-German novelist and writer, Ruth Prawer-Jabhvala, the only person to win an Academy Award and a Booker Prize.
The multicultural relationship lasted for more than 44 years, ending only with Merchant's death in 2005, producing such acclaimed films as A Room with a View (1985), Howards End (1992) and Remains of the Day (1993), which was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
Ivory first met Merchant at a screening of The Sword and the Flute, a film Ivory made about Indian miniatures in 1959. It was the start of a lifelong career that crossed continents, cultures and media and of a series of relationships whose cosmopolitanism not only defined Merchant Ivory, but which also now defines the aspirations of Louvre Abu Dhabi and the whole of the Saadiyat Island Cultural District.
“These talks embody the spirit of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the museum’s commitment to education, and its multicultural fabric,” HE Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of TCA Abu Dhabi said. “With a rare look at some of the artworks that will make up the museum’s permanent collection and future loans, Louvre Abu Dhabi: Talking Art Series IV will allow audiences to see the universal concept of the museum come to life.”
Leonardo da Vinci comes to Abu Dhabi, the first event of Louvre Abu Dhabi: Talking Art Series IV will take place at 6.30pm on Wednesday 15 October at Manarat Al Saadiyat, located in the Saadiyat Cultural District. Tickets are available from www.saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae or call +971 (0) 2 657 5800.
See here for more information on Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferroniere and Louvre Abu Dhabi: Talking Art Series IV