Paris's Louvre Museum is offering a virtual reality experience of its most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, as part of its ambitious, decade-in-the-making retrospective of Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci that opens Thursday.
The retrospective, simply titled “Leonardo da Vinci”, gathers 11 of the artist's paintings, as well as drawings and documents, to mark 500 years since his death in the French city of Amboise.
Curators have spent a decade planning the show, which includes works from the Louvre's own collection as well as loans from Britain, Russia, the Vatican and Italy, whose negotiations with France over the loans were particularly intense.
Not physically present in the special exhibition space in the museum's Napoleon Hall is the Mona Lisa, which remains in its usual, bulletproof-glass-enclosed spot in the Salle des Etats room of the Denon wing.
Some 200,000 people have already reserved places for the exhibition, and in an attempt to avoid overcrowding, organisers decided not to touch the Mona Lisa, which attracts nearly 30,000 people every day.
Instead, the exhibit offers a virtual reality (VR) experience that partly aims to circumvent the long waits for a short glimpse of the masterpiece.
Learning about the Mona Lisa
“[Curators] wanted to include the Mona Lisa in the exhibit without moving the painting, but the most important thing about the VR content is telling the story of this painting in a very immersive way,” says Celina Yeh, project manager with VR firm HTC Vive Arts, which designed the experience, called Mona Lisa: Behind the Glass.
Equipped with a VR headset, visitors are taken on a seven-minute immersive journey that begins with an acknowledgement and departure from the usual experience of the artwork.
“You are in front of the painting, there are lots of people in front of you, and suddenly the crowd disappears, you are facing the painting by yourself, very closely, and you can examine the details of the texture and the painting.”
But Yeh says the VR experience is less about avoiding crowds than it is about teaching the masterpiece and its subject, the ineffably smiling wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant.
“There are so many myths and legends about the painting and the woman, but curators wanted to tell people the real story,” Yeh says. “With the VR, you understand who she was, her background, her character and the techniques the painter was using.”
Paintings given special importance
The Louvre expects its show will draw much interest, and is requiring visitors to make reservations in advance for specific time slots.
While it includes 160 works in total, including drawings, manuscripts, sculptures and objets d'art, the show aims to reflect how Leonardo himself placed the greatest importance on painting.
It includes the four other paintings in the Louvre's collection, The Virgin of the Rocks, La Belle Ferronnière, Saint John the Baptist and the Saint Anne, along with six from elsewhere, more than half of the less than 20 paintings that experts attribute to Da Vinci.
In addition to the Mona Lisa, another notable absence is Salvator Mundi, a depiction of Jesus Christ emerging from darkness, which became the world's most expensive painting when it sold for an amount worth about 400 million euros at a Christie's auction in 2017.
Painting vanished from public eye
Salvator Mundi has not been seen in public since its sale, fuelling speculation about its buyer, its whereabouts and even its authenticity, as some experts believe the painting is actually a work of one of Leonardo's apprentices.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a Saudi prince purchased the painting on behalf of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, which Riyadh has neither confirmed nor denied. The website Artnet News reported rumours that the crown prince is keeping the painting on his yacht.
The culture ministry of the United Arab Emirates claimed ownership of the painting and said it was going on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September 2018, but then postponed the hanging.
A request from the Louvre for the UAE to loan the painting is still pending.
The show “Leonardo da Vinci” is scheduled to run from 24 October 2019 to 24 February 2020.