Leonardo was a man of the Renaissance, not narrow nationhood | Tristram Hunt


He drew portraits for Italian dukes, sketched for the papacy and died at the court of a French king. If there is any artist who defies nationhood it is certainly Leonardo da Vinci. Yet very last 7 days, Leonardo’s cosmopolitan legacy was caught up in an amazing intergovernmental spat whenRome renewed its threat to block Italian galleries from lending to the forthcoming Louvre exhibitioncommemorating the five hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s loss of life.

This fine-artwork impasse has been brewing considering that November when the new Italian tradition minister, Lucia Borgonzoni, from the far-correct League bash, explained a prior government’s decision to lend to France as “one of the most significant, most shameful acts with regard to cultural heritage”. Bottom line: there could be no dilemma of a mortgage devoid ofLa Giocondacoming the other way. “Leonardo was Italian, just after all. Why really don’t they loan us theMona Lisa?”

The row exposes, in populist colour, the awful danger for artistic trade when politicians declare possession of artists as nationwide icons. More than that, what the Louvre-Leonardo dispute reinforces is the urgent need to have for museums to stand up to today’s encircling clamour of chauvinism and cultural essentialism.

There is a lengthy and lovely heritage of princes marshalling artwork and design and style for propaganda needs. We would not have approximately as superb a memory of Henry VIII and his wives without the need of the brushwork ofHans Holbein(a Bavarian). And what better perception into the Habsburg court docket of Philip IV of Spain is there than Diego Velázquez’s baroque cycle of royal portraits?

In excess of the earlier 3 generations, nations have proved just as adept as dynasties in making certain that society serves a wider ideological agenda. When Britishness was forged through the latter fifty percent of the 18th century on a diet plan of anti-Catholicism, empire and war, it was William Hogarth who ideal codified this producing feeling of identity. HisO the Roast Beef of Previous England (“The Gate of Calais”), with its garish depictions of extra fat monks, bare-footed nuns and effeminate French soldiers, was a single-sheeted declaration of the glory of Great Britain.

On the other aspect of the Atlantic, Thomas Cole (a British immigrant) and theHudson River University of landscape artistswould do the exact for the US. Their large, arching canvases depictedThe us as a new Eden, liberated from the corruption and filth of outdated Europe. It was the artistry of manifest future that helped to mould an emergent US sensibility.

These days, the approach is no less overt, with art and monumental architecture greatly associated in nationwide self-assertion. On the West Bund of Shanghai, for case in point, there is an amazing cluster of swish galleries and museums marking fashionable China’s new confidence when it arrives to cultural patronage. And this March, unbowed by sanctions, Doha will open up its stunning Jean Nouvel-madeCountrywide Museum of Qatar, crammed with some of the biggest Islamic artwork in the planet.

But none of this nationalist lineage applies to Leonardo. Together with Erasmus of Rotterdam, Leonardo was one particular of the foremost lights of Renaissance humanism. He was part of an influential school of quattrocento artists, writers and philosophers who moved seamlessly across the secular and spiritual, inventive and scientific, political and point out boundaries, jettisoning the scholastic “middle ages” to champion the artistic potential of male. HisVitruvian Male(c 1490), with its anatomical depiction of human proportions rooted in classical purity, is a testament to the shared essence of humanity.

From Florence to Milan to the Loire Valley, Leonardo was a boy or girl of the Renaissance for whom modern day statements of nationhood make no sense. Evidently a thing else is going on with this cultural blockade. On the a single hand, there is Leonardo lunacy. As the controversy in excess of the acquire, authenticity and now whereabouts of the $450mSalvator Mundihas discovered, this genius artist-engineer of 500 several years ago has the ability to send out auction houses, scholars and even nations 50 %-mad. Then there is the open up rancour that exists involving France’s progressive, professional-European President Emmanuel Macron and Rome’s additional nationalistic 5 Star-League coalition, with its formal backing of thegilets jaunesinsurgency.

Nevertheless the dispute highlights a broader, stressing trend for populist governments to find to inhibit artistic trade. A programme of financial nationalism, paranoid chauvinism and anti-immigration can swiftly seep into the cultural sphere. In 2017, President Nicolás MadurobannedGustavo Dudamel and his lauded Venezuela countrywide youth orchestra from touring America right after the conductor condemned the killing of musicians in Caracas. “Welcome to politics,” sneered Maduro. In convert, US sanctions on Tehran have seriously affected the capacity of US institutions to collaborate with Iranian artists and curators. Most absurdly (if tellingly), in Russia, community authorities have sought to avoid Kaliningrad airportgetting renamedin honour of its most celebrated son, Immanuel Kant, exactly for the reason that of the 18th-century philosopher’s Enlightenment cosmopolitanism.

By distinction, record also abounds with moments of diplomatic tension relieved by creative partnership. At the top of the cold war, in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Bolshoi Ballet performed to rapturous audiences throughout Washington. From lending the Parthenon sculptures to Russia to hosting China’s terracotta army in Liverpool, British museums and galleries have long appreciated the relevance of cultural engagement outside the house the diplomatic strictures of federal government. Today,Daniel Barenboim’s West-Japanese Divan Orchestra, with its array of younger musicians drawn from across the Middle East, is arguably the most inspiring instance of artwork speaking with 1 language.

With the liberal sky darkening from Hungary to Brazil, it is the obligation of galleries, orchestras and theatres to defend these ideas of enlightenment, cosmopolitanism and expertise. As social media memes spread false news, and political divides come to be additional embittered, our position as dependable institutions to contextualise existing controversies fulfils a very important civic purpose. For we have the collections, born of hundreds of decades of empire, trade and migration, that dispel all those alluring myths of countrywide purity and, instead, explain to the authentic, heterogeneous story of human creative imagination. Certainly, that ethos of exchange and inquiry is the accurate humanist inheritance of Leonardo – and not this demeaning tussle as to whether Paris or Rome seriously individual his genius.

Tristram Hunt is director of the Victoria and Albert Museum