Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Muscarelle’s Da Vinci Exhibit Breaks Records in Mexico City

The lines to see the da Vinci exhibit wound around the block, often getting up to six hours long on a daily basis. (Courtesy Palacio de las Bellas Artes)
The lines to see the da Vinci exhibit wound around the block, often getting up to six hours long on a daily basis. (Courtesy Palacio de las Bellas Artes)

Leonardo Da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty continues to break records everywhere it goes.

The exhibit, which was selected and catalogued by John T. Spike, chief curator at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, broke records when it drew more than 60,000 viewers to the Muscarelle during its debut this past spring.

From there it moved on to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where more than 100,000 visitors saw it, making it the most visited temporary exhibit in the museum’s history.

It transferred to its final destination, the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City earlier this summer, and in under two months drew a record-breaking crowd of more than 200,000, far surpassing expectations.

The scene surrounding the exhibit in Mexico City was nothing short of a frenzy, with Mexican authorities reporting daily six-hour lines outside of the museum, according to a recent news release from the Muscarelle.

Visitors flocked from all over to see original drawings by both Leonardo da Vinci and his rival, Michelangelo Buonarroti. More than a quarter of visitors came from outside of Mexico City, and 5 percent came from outside of the country.

“[Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes does] so few exhibitions of this kind that people have the feeling it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Spike, whose original catalogue was translated into Spanish for use in the Mexico City show.

Additionally, Spike believes that part of the popular appeal of the exhibition lies not just in the works of art on display but also in how they relate to one another and the story they tell together.

“We promise, and this promise is implicit in the theme we choose, to teach you something that would be difficult to learn on your own,” he said. “The exhibition offers curious pieces of information that people never expected to learn, and that’s what creates the word of mouth.”

This information is communicated not just through the catalogue but also through the plaques and other reading materials on display in the gallery, all of which have been translated into Spanish from the originals that were put together by Spike and the Muscarelle team.

The overwhelming response to the exhibit led Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts to take unprecedented actions to ensure both the security of the artwork and the ability to meet the demands of its fans.

As the show neared its closing Aug. 23, the museum extended its operating hours to twelve hours a day, with viewing times restricted to one hour per person in order to allow more people to pass through.

The uproar reached a crescendo in the final days of the exhibit, during which time the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes made the decision to stay open for 72 hours straight in order to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for access to the 25-plus sketches, among which were numbered a self-portrait of da Vinci and an image once described as “the most beautiful drawing in the world” by Sir Kenneth Clark, a famous British author and art historian.

The Mexico City show marks the first time that the Muscarelle has originated a show that went to another country, which is a significant boost to the prestige of the museum and to William & Mary.

“When we share the shows, it carries our name to a whole other news markets,” Spike said. “And when we organize future exhibitions, it’s easier to get a loan [of artwork from another museum] if they know already you do important exhibitions.”

The ramifications of such a wildly successful show are local as well as national. Membership at the Muscarelle has seen a significant boost since the exhibition, and now museum staff will begin to regroup and consider what the next major undertaking will be.

As for the drawings themselves, they will return to their homes in Turin and Florence to rest in a dark, climate-controlled room for several years before they are allowed to be displayed anywhere again.

The passion for these drawings and the care they will be afforded while hidden from sight for several years are both indicative of the enduring appeal and importance of the works of masterful artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo, Spike said.

“The great artists will never let you down,” he said. “People say, ‘Haven’t they been done already?’ but you just can’t get to the end of the great artists.”

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