The world’s most visited museum has broken its own attendance record for a single exhibition by almost double. The Louvre’s blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci retrospective, timed to the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance master’s death, brought in 1,071,840 visitors over the four months it was on view, easily smashing the previous record of 540,000, held by a 2018 Eugène Delacroix retrospective.
Curated by Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank and in the works for about 10 years, the exhibition was expected to be popular. The museum required visitors to reserve specific time slots to see the show, and tickets became available a few months before its October opening. Then, two weeks before the exhibition closed on Monday, February 24, the Louvre announced that, to accommodate continuing enormous demand, it would offer 30,000 free tickets online for slots overnight from 9 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. during the show’s closing weekend.
The historic move—keeping the museum open for nearly 81 consecutive hours—was designed partly as an appeal to younger and local museumgoers, who are often put off from visiting by the crowd of tourists in the Louvre; it served to put the museum again at the top of the Art Newspaper’s annual museum attendance survey for 2018, bringing in 10.2 million people. (According to figures published on its website, the Louvre brought in 9.6 million people in 2019.) Additionally, 85 groups, including schoolchildren and disabled visitors, were given exclusive access to the exhibition.
The critically celebrated exhibition brought together some 160 works by da Vinci, including paintings, sculptures, and drawings selected from the Louvre’s collection and supplemented by loans from institutions such as the Vatican Museums, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Royal Collection and the National Gallery in Britain, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Many of the Louvre’s da Vinci works were moved from their usual displays in other parts of the museum, including Virgin of the Rocks (ca. 1483–88), La Belle Ferronnière (1495), and Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1504–06). The Mona Lisa was not moved from its spot in the Salle des États because of concerns about crowd control.
Though the Louvre was able to secure major loans for the show, including the Madonna Benoit (1478) from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Saint Jerome (1480) from the Vatican Museums, two famed works drew much speculation as to whether they might be in the exhibition. After a two-year political battle, an Italian judge ruled that da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (ca. 1490) could make the journey from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice just days before it was set to open, but Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500), which set the record in 2017 for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction for $450 million, did not appear. (Its current whereabouts are unknown, though rumors have placed it on a Saudi-owned yacht.)