Encounters with Leonardo

Article – 15 Apr 2024

Image © Andrea Jemolo

Genius. It’s one of those words that has become so overused and misused in our febrile online age that it often feels in danger of redundancy. But genius in its truest sense remains an entirely accurate epithet for Leonardo Da Vinci.

Born in the tiny village of Anchiano, Florence, in April 1452, he became a man both of and ahead of his times. Arguably his most enduring fame is as a visionary artist, but he was a true polymath who turned his questing intellect towards multiple fields of study, including science, astronomy, sculpting, engineering and architecture.

Here was a rational mind that freely embraced the spiritual; a mind capable of taking conceptual leaps, making connections, and seeing things differently. As historian Kenneth Clarke noted "He is a standing refutation of the comfortable belief that all great men are simple".

Over the years Goppion has enjoyed the privilege of working on a number of projects protecting and displaying some of Leonardo’s most celebrated, enduring works. Among them, the ever-enigmatic Mona Lisa. We have been commissioned twice by the Musée du Louvre, Paris, in 2005 ⁣and 2019, to safeguard the masterpiece with bespoke display case designs. These required the highest standards of high-tech engineering, preventive conservation, and maximum legibility for the millions of visitors who flock to see this icon of global culture every year.

Vitrine "de Sécours", 2005

Image © Andrea Jemolo

The current display case has certainly proven its worth, protecting the Mona Lisa from anything the exterior environment can throw at it. This includes not only the usual suspects such as humidity, temperature and light, but more unexpected threats, including a smeared piece of cake, and in 2024, a flask of soup hurled by climate protestors.

As part of Goppion’s long-standing relationship with the Louvre, we were also commissioned to assist with the temporary display of the Burlington House Cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, in 2012 on loan from the National Gallery.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne cartoon, 2012

We travelled west to Dublin, Eire, to work with the Chester Beatty Library in 2007. The Library was proud to temporarily display the so-called Codex Leicester – famously purchased by Bill and Melinda Gates in 1994 and rarely on public display. The Codex is widely considered to be one of Leonardo’s most important illustrated scientific manuscripts, in which he ponders a number of subjects, including hydrology, astronomy and geology. Its pages are peppered with theories, experiments and observations: it is a wonderful window into the ceaselessly enquiring mind of the great man. Here, Goppion provided the display cases for the precious manuscripts.

Unsurprisingly, Italy proudly hosts a great many works by its famous son. Milan is home to a number of famous Leonardo paintings, including The Last Supper, at Santa Maria delle Grazie. In 2008, Goppion had the great honor of being trusted with realizing the exhibition elements for this legendary painting. In addition to providing 4 frame cases for sketches and prints present in the exhibit, we also produced a low, solid metal, wall-anchored barricade, which provides accompanying information and interpretive panels.

The following year, we provided a display case for another of Leonardo’s most famous paintings, the enigmatic Saint John the Baptist, for a temporary exhibit at the Palazzo Marino.

Also in Milan, at the Ambrosiana Library, we created special modular table cases for the first public display of the Atlantic Codex. The twelve large-format bound ‘atlas’ volumes contain many original signed drawings and notes by Leonardo, along with work by his students – in all numbering well over a thousand pages. Their fragility and rarity required stringent protective measures against theft, light exposure and inadequate micro-climate, plus support to avoid tension on the volume bindings.

Codex Atlanticus Exhibition

Another famous Leonardo painting is the Lady With an Ermine, made in c.1490. Just over 500 years later, in 1998, the original canvas went on tour in Italy, where it was displayed at three prestigious locations in Rome, Florence and Milan.

Lady with Ermine

Goppion was enlisted to design and realize an airtight display case that could handle the rigors and variables of temporary display in very different environments. At the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Goppion has twice worked with yet another of Leonardo’s iconic works, the Vitruvian Man. First in 2002, and again in 2019, when we returned with an innovative new custom-made, micro-climate controlled frame that offers maximum protection and visibility.

Goppion’s ongoing relationship with Leonardo Da Vinci is of course rewarding; we are helping to protect his legacy for future generations. But collectively, his copious artworks and manuscripts are also a reminder to us all. A reminder of the innate and timeless value such works bring to global culture, reflecting the power and potential of creative endeavor, and the unending curiosity that makes us truly human.