Leonardo Da Vinci – still one of the most famous people on earth; almost 500 years after his death and it’s no surprise, really, when you think about what he achieved. His Wikipedia page introduces him as an “Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.” Not bad, really, given that he excelled at all of them.
Although his first outing as a genius was in the guise of a musician, he is, perhaps, best-known for ‘pre-inventing’ flying machines, parachutes, a diving bell and military defence systems; and even better known than that for several of his paintings. And just in case you didn’t know: contrary to popular opinion, he didn’t invent scissors and Da Vinci is not his surname, it means ‘from Vinci’ which was, at the time, a town in the Republic of Florence – now Tuscany.
So – his paintings: perhaps his four best-known works are in four of Europe’s most interesting cities: Paris, Milan, Venice and Krakow and they are, in turn: The Mona Lisa (or La Gioconda, in Italian), The Last Supper, The Vitruvian Man and Lady with an Ermine. Each one is within easy reach of a Radisson Blu hotel, but not, necessarily, easy to see. However, with a little bit of inside information, you can see all of these masterpieces in all of their magnificent glory.
Let’s start in Paris – home of The Mona Lisa (it’s called La Joconde here); she lives in one of the world’s largest museums: the Louvre. The painting itself is very heavily protected – sitting inside a bulletproof glass case; and understandably so. She was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and although Picasso was briefly interviewed about its disappearance, it was actually a Louvre employee who had taken her; he believed that she should be returned to Italy and was finally caught when he tried to sell her to a gallery in Florence. In 1956 she was subjected to two vandal attacks and subsequent attempts to ruin the painting have been thwarted by the glass case.
She is one of the biggest attractions in the Louvre and always draws big crowds – but there are ways of getting to spend a little time with her alone, or at least without too many other people. Rather than going in through the main entrance (through the famous glass pyramid), go underground into the Carousel du Louvre (a shopping centre) – you’ll see the entrance very close to the arch at the west side of the museum. You can get inside by 8.30am which means you’ll be ready at 9am when they open the doors and you won’t be in a huge queue (like those at the main entrance). Another tip is not to take a bag with you thereby avoiding the screening process. Then take the first escalator and then the lift straight ahead of you. You’ll end up right next to The Mona Lisa… enjoy your moment, you’ll be joined very shortly by the crowds running up the stairs to see her too. And prepare yourself, she’s not very big: only 77 cm by 53 cm.
The Last Supper
Now on to, arguably, the second-most-famous painting in the world: Da Vinci’s Last Supper. This one’s much bigger – around 8.5 metres by 4.5 metres – and is painted on the wall of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Da Vinci started it in 1495 and completed his work three years later. He used non-traditional methods to create it and, as a consequence, the painting immediately started to deteriorate – it has undergone numerous restorations in its 500 year history and some argue that today there is nothing of the original left. However, it’s still a glorious site.
As well as almost constant restoration, the painting has survived having a door cut into it, French revolutionary troops throwing stones at it and even a World War Two bomb which destroyed much of the building. Now it simply has admirers. If you want to see it, you have to book in advance – sometimes months in advance. Try online and if you can’t get the date you want, then telephone, this is sometimes the best method. Once you have your ticket, you get 15 minutes inside, in a small group: plenty of time to drink in the extraordinary beauty of this iconic masterpiece.
“There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.” Leonardo Da Vinci
Another of his images, Vitruvian Man, is recognised the world over: this is in pen and ink on paper and shows a man in two superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart, held in place by a circle and square. It’s a magnificent example of Da Vinci’s extraordinary understanding of proportion and the absolute pinnacle of his blend of scientific and artistic thinking.
It lives in the Gallerie dell’Accademica in Venice and, like most works on paper, it is rarely displayed to the public. It does tour, very occasionally, but should you want to see it, you should keep an eye on the museum.
Lady with an Ermine
Over to Poland for the last of Da Vinci’s masterpieces: Lady with an Ermine. She was the young mistress of The Duke of Milan, Da Vinci’s employer at the time. The techniques and materials that were used were quite new at the time of painting (1489) and the work has been much desired throughout its history. It was even seized from Poland by the Nazis in 1939 and remained out of view until it was rescued by the Allies at the end of the war.
Usually, it lives in the Princes Czartoryski Museum, but due to renovations it has spent four years at the Wawel Royal Castle. It is due to return home in 2014. Both locations limit the number of people who can see the painting and display it singly in a room containing no other paintings. Do check to see where it is before you make your journey.
So – one man, four masterpieces – and four great reasons to visit four amazing places.