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Saunders: Museum learns that when Leonardo da Vinci comes calling, you’d better answer

Leonardo da Vinci, “Codex Leicester (Sheet 1A, folio 1r),” 1508-10, ink on paper, 11 2/3 x 8 1/2 inches. The fragile document is shown in special display cases custom-built in Milan, Italy.
Leonardo da Vinci, “Codex Leicester (Sheet 1A, folio 1r),” 1508-10, ink on paper, 11 2/3 x 8 1/2 inches. The fragile document is shown in special display cases custom-built in Milan, Italy. N.C. Museum of Art

I don’t know about you, but there have been two times when I knew without a doubt that I needed a better class of friends:

▪ When I called a buddy to bail me out of jail in 1990 but he said “wait” because he was watching “Lonesome Dove” and the video was due back at Blockbuster by midnight.

▪ On Friday, when I told my buddy Mayfield I was going to the museum to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit and he said, “Barry, man. He was good in Titanic.”

Wrong Leonardo.

The Leonardo whose sketches, drawings and notes that hundreds of Triangle residents and I went to the N.C. Museum of Art to see unveiled Friday night was the 15th century sculptor, inventor, painter and thinker, the one who painted, among other things, the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

Hmmm. You reckon anyone’s ever figured out what that old girl’s inscrutable smile is hiding?

The Triangle is already acknowledged as a leader in research, technology and college basketball – and has made great strides in shrimp and grits. Pretty soon, it may be equally celebrated for its appreciation of culture. This is the first time in seven years that the da Vinci exhibit has been taken out for a spin, and I asked David Steel, the museum curator, before whom did the NCMA have to prostrate itself to get it.

No one, he answered quickly.

“They came to us,” he said. “We didn’t go to them. I was sitting at my desk minding my own business and Larry Wheeler” – museum director – “came in and said, ‘I think we have a chance to show the Leonardo codex.’ I was like ‘Wow!’... “They wanted to select one museum in the West, one museum in the central U.S. and one on the East Coast. We are a medium-sized museum, but the lenders thought we were one of the best in the country. So they picked us.”

Another thing in NCMA’s favor, he said, is that “we actually have a much better collection of Italian art around Leonardo” than any of the museums that have displayed his works before. “The phrase they used (to describe the Triangle) was ‘a community of innovation.’ That was one of the things that excited them – all of the universities around here that have facilities like hydrology, biology, all of the things that Leonardo is talking about in the codex.

The codex, or notebook, is “very fragile,” Steel said, “a very, very, very rare book; in fact, the only notebook of Leonardo’s in North America.”

Being a jaded journalist, I can think of only three things that could make my knees come close to buckling from being close to them: gazing upon the original Emancipation Proclamation, shaking hands with Russell Thompkins Jr., the lead singer of the Stylistics, at Soul Jam ’86 in Gary, Ind. – and seeing the 500-year-old notebook into which da Vinci wrote his musings, drew his sketches.

When asked, Steel said the museum never tells the value of an exhibit, but acknowledged that the notebook is “the most expensive manuscript or book ever sold at auction.”

“More expensive than the Gutenberg Bible?”

“It’s the most expensive manuscript or book ever sold at auction,” he repeated patiently.

More expensive than my autographed, slightly tattered copy of the Disco Tex & the Sex-O-lettes’ Greatest Hits album, featuring Sir Monti Rock III?

He didn’t even answer that one.

I looked up the price of the Leonardo book and found that the 72-page notebook was purchased for $30.8 million in 1994.

It was purchased by some dude named Gates, Bill Gates, but fear not. There’ll be no interactive display of Leonardo doodling on a Microsoft tablet or otherwise hawking products from the company Gates co-founded.

Gates, Steel said, “has been very, very low-key. If you come to the museum, there’s one little mention in the credit line saying ‘This exhibition was made possible by Bill Gates.’”

Because of the exhibit’s value, the NCMA has increased security. “We take great care in our security for all of the works of art here, but that is what the lender wanted us to do,” Steel said. “So we did” increase it.

Steel said visitors will have to go through a metal detector, and among the “no-nos are food, pens, magic markers, weapons, liquids. We don’t want you rubbing your hands with lotion” and possibly soiling a piece of art.

I know, right? It’s doubtful that “Oops” would suffice if you got some Jergens on a work of art that costs more than some countries’ GDP.

So, if you’re ashy when you get there, you’d better just stay ashy. Leave the lotion at home.

Bring your sense of awe, though.