Moving Leonardo -- art loan stirs passions in Italy

FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters) - The loan of one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings to Japan has caused an uproar in Italy and one senator chained himself to the gates of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery on Monday in protest at the transfer.

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Centre-right Senator Paolo Amato says the “Annunciation” is simply too precious and delicate to be sent abroad.

“I know this may not seem like appropriate behaviour for a senator, but it’s the only way of shaking consciences,” Amato told Reuters.

Inside the Uffizi, the painting was packed into three high-tech protective crates fitted with shock-absorbers and sensors measuring temperature and humidity levels.

It will be driven in a lorry under police escort to Rome and then fly to Tokyo on Tuesday to be displayed as the centrepiece of “Italian Spring” -- a three-month long series of exhibitions and events celebrating Italian art and products.

“Why do we need to put a unique art treasure at risk of being damaged? This is shameful,” Amato said. “We are treating the ‘Annunciation’ like a luxury gadget for a commercial exhibition promoting wine and pasta.”

Some 300 politicians and art experts wrote to Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, asking him to stop the transfer, which is also opposed by the director of the Uffizi.

But Rutelli dismissed the protest as a publicity stunt on Monday, saying the decision to lend the prestigious painting was “good for Italy and good for Florence”.

Cristina Acidini, head of the Polo Museale Fiorentino which oversees Florence’s museums, said conservationists had examined the painting and given the transfer the green light. An Uffizi architect and a restorer will accompany the work, insured for 100 million euros (68.2 million pounds), all the way to Tokyo.

“Had the painting been even in a slightly precarious state, then I would have chained myself to the gates,” Acidini said.

Tokyo’s national museum, where the “Annunciation” will be displayed, hosted Leonardo’s best known masterpiece, “The Mona Lisa”, in the 1970s on loan from the Louvre.

But in Italy, feuds over how to manage and showcase the country’s many art treasures are frequent. Loans are frowned upon and foreign projects can be the source of fierce controversy.

The planned building of a modern exit for the Uffizi museum by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki was only recently given the go-ahead after being frozen for eight years.

In Rome, a former centre-right culture minister famously called the modern Ara Pacis museum, designed by U.S. architect Richard Meier and inaugurated last year, “an indecent cesspit”.

“The Annunciation”, painted between 1472 and 1475 when Leonardo was in his 20s, depicts the Angel Gabriel revealing to the Virgin Mary that she is pregnant.

It measures 217 by 98 centimetres and only left the Uffizi three times, between 1935 and 1940.

Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene