Leonardo Da Vinci was no stranger to France. He spent his final three years in the country, dying at 67 in a Loire Valley château exactly 500 years ago. His Mona Lisa, which has hung in the Louvre Museum since the French Revolution, virtually defines Paris as a city of art treasures.
And so it is Paris–not, to the irritation of many Italians, Leonardo’s native Florence–that’s marking that anniversary by hosting the largest collection of his work ever shown. After all, the Louvre already owns five of his 15 paintings that remain. “Leonardo da Vinci,” which opened Oct. 24 and runs for four months, is a runaway hit, with more than 410,000 advance tickets sold by day five.
Walking through the dark rooms, one can see why. The nearly 120 works range from notebook sketches to spectacularly spotlit paintings, like the Benoit Madonna and St. John the Baptist, as well as infrared reflectographs, all capturing one man’s relentless inquiry into biology, architecture, mechanics, light and texture.
Staging it was not easy. The Louvre spent a decade cajoling museums, including several in the U.S., to lend their Leonardos. Even so, the celebrated Vitruvian Man drawing arrived from Venice just days before the opening after a bitter court battle in Italy over whether it was too fragile to travel. And no amount of begging could bring to Paris the Salvator Mundi painting that sold in 2017 for a record $450.3 million, reportedly to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Also absent: the Mona Lisa, which remains in its regular spot in the Louvre, where more than 30,000 people a day snake past its recessed glass case, jostling for selfies. The Louvre did not want that obsession to overwhelm its Leonardo exhibition, which requires a separate ticket and instead includes a virtual-reality Mona Lisa experience. “If the Mona Lisa was there, there would be no more exhibition,” Louis Frank, one of the exhibition’s curators, tells TIME. “It is the most venerated work in the museum.”
The Mona Lisa also, some Louvre workers say, creates a circus. In May, museum staff went on strike, saying the 10.2 million annual visitors were turning the Louvre into a “cultural Disneyland,” making their work untenable. “The Louvre is suffocating,” their union stated.
This blockbuster Leonardo exhibition will do little to ease the crush. But given that all tickets must be prebooked, it will at least be a more orderly experience, potentially drawing Parisians who typically steer clear of the overrun Louvre. “People want to see works that they know, that they recognize,” Frank says. And France, after all, is no stranger to Leonardo.
This appears in the November 11, 2019 issue of TIME.
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