Leonardo. The Madonna Benois- from the Ermitage collections (01-30 June 2019)

Leonardo. The Madonna Benois- from the Ermitage collections (01-30 June 2019)



Milan, 10 May – The Leonardo exhibition was presented today in Milan, in the Weil Weiss Room of Castello Sforzesco: The Benois Madonna, from the collections of the Hermitage. In the year of the 500th anniversary of his death, the young masterpiece of the Tuscan Maestro returns to Italy, 35 years after his only exhibition, on the occasion of the XIII Unesco Creative Cities Network Annual Conference in Fabriano.

The Ermitage, chooses unlike others, to celebrate the genius of the great Italian artist in his native country, with exceptional loans starting with the “Madonna Benois” in Fabriano, where the precious work will be on display at the Pinacoteca municipal of the city of Marche from 1 to 30 June 2019.

Present at the Castello Sforzesco meeting: Filippo Del Corno, Councilor for Culture of the Municipality of Milan, which hosts the presentation to the press; Maria Francesca Merloni, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Creative Cities, promoter and creator of the Fabriano event; Irina Artemieva, curator of the Hermitage; Maurizio Cecconi, General Secretary of “Ermitage Italia” and Carlo Bertelli, curator together with Tatiana Kustodieva of the exhibition, organized by Cigno GG Edizioni and Villaggio Globale International.

In Fabriano, the exhibition of this extraordinary work constitutes the main event of the cultural program of the XIII UNESCO Creative Cities Conference, the most important international event of the network that brings together the municipalities that have identified creativity as a strategic development factor. The meeting, hosted in the Marche city from 10 to 15 June 2019, it will give rise to a wide debate on the challenges of cities in the 21st century and will represent a unique opportunity to show the world the best of the Italian creativity system.

“We are honored and very happy,” said Maria Francesca Merloni. “It is a great privilege to exhibit” La Madonna Benois “at the XIII UNESCO Creative Cities Network Annual Conference. The Creative Cities bow to the genius of Leonardo, to his message of beauty, which edifies and redeems, to the openness to the mystery that such a precious work carries in itself”.

“We have chosen to bring this masterpiece of Leonardo to Fabriano – explains from St. Petersburg Prof. Michail Piotrovsky Director General of the State Hermitage Museum – because in Italy there are no cities that do not deserve great masterpieces, especially small towns such as Matera and Fabriano have been chosen by the European Union or UNESCO to host international cultural events. This however is also the great difference of the Hermitage compared to other museums that ask for the celebrations to host Leonardo. We choose to donate, giving the possibility to the different countries – but above all to the Italy with which we have strong ties – to see again at home great masterpieces of the greatest world artists. We did it with Canaletto in Venice, with Michelangelo in Rome, we’ll do it with Raphael. As for Leonardo Fabriano it is the beginning. A magnificent start. The Madonna Benois will then go to Perugia while the Madonna Litta will arrive in Milan. This is the cultural policy chosen by the Hermitage.”

The Madonna Benois” icon known in the world, is a key work of the young Leonardo da Vinci. Probably built between 1478 and 1480, it marks its independence from the style and formation of Verrocchio, in whose workshop the Maestro had entered about 10 years earlier: a manifesto of that “modern manner” of which Leonardo was an initiator. At his second commitment to one of the most widespread religious themes, at the age of twenty-six, the artist breaks with tradition and invents a new figure of Mary: no longer the imperturbable Queen of the heavens but a simple mother who plays with the own son.

Tatiana Kustodieva explains in the catalog (joint edition Il Cigno/Skira): “in Verrocchio was absent what in Leonardo represents the main element and that is the spiritual kinship, the unity existing between a mother and her child”.

“Leonardo – wrote Carlo Bertelli – did not create a static and devotional image, he only stopped a moment”; “He did not paint a genre scene, but he introduced deep meanings into everyday life” such as the one referred to by the map that Maria swirls between her fingers, intriguing her son: a common – but premonitory – crucifera. Even the semi-darkness in which he places the two sacred figures – a closed and semi-dark, very private place – unlike the open and sunny space of the Florentine tradition, increases the questions, introducing according to some expectation and mystery, and distinguishes this “Leonardesque first , so full of future developments.




There are very few paintings by Leonardo: the interest and commitment of Da Vinci also in the scientific and technical field, his belief that the painter to understand nature must have different knowledge – from the perspective to the principles of optics, up to anatomy – they ensure that he eventually creates a few paintings, taken from a thousand speculations, often leaving his innovative figurative ideas in the embryonic stage.

The reasons attributable to an invention of the master are therefore much more numerous than the few autograph works that have come down to us.

“The Madonna Benois” entered the collections of the Hermitage in 1914 and was certainly the most important acquisition of the St. Petersburg Museum in the years immediately preceding the Revolution.

A “national” event, born from the courage of the then Conservatory of painting of the Hermitage, great expert of Italian art Ernest KarloviÄ von Liphart, and from the homeland love of the owner Marija Aleksandrovna Benois (Benua, born SapoÅnikova), wife of the famous St. Petersburg architect Leontij NikolaeviÄ Benua (Benois). Marija Aleksandrovna in 1880 had received from her father the “Madonna with the flower” as a wedding present, already part of the assets of her paternal grandfather, a certain Aleksandr Petrovič SapoÅnikov, merchant in Astrachan’.

In November 1913 the magazine Starye gody wrote: “All art lovers and all interested parties can congratulate themselves on a happy event in our artistic life: the Benois Madonna was bought by the Imperial Hermitage… Impossible not to remember here with gratitude feelings of the owner, Marija Aleksandrovna Benois, for having wanted to renounce a part of the sale price in order to preserve the painting in Russia. ”Despite the legends about the origin of the work, which for a long time was thought to have been purchased by Marija’s grandfather Aleksandrovna from a company of strolling actors, the precious, small painting (48 x 37 cm), as it was made clear in the late seventies, actually belonged to the splendid collection of General Korsakov, the oldest owner so far known of Leonardo’s masterpiece.

The work was auctioned by the collector in 1822; SapoÅnikov waited patiently for prices to fall and between 1823 and 1824 he bought the painting, already referred to as Leonardo’s. In the register of cadres of the new owner compiled in 1827, we read “At n. 1 of the list we find a “Mother of God with the Eternal Infant on the left arm”. Originally painted on wood due to its age, in 1824 it was transported on canvas by the academician Korotkov. The upper part is centered: Author, Leonardo da Vinci. The transport on canvas revealed an ink drawing, and also a Child with three hands, from which a lithographic drawing was drawn. From the collection of General Korsakov ”.

All the owners of the work have always believed in Leonardo’s paternity but the academic world had not yet expressed itself. We will have to wait for a 1908 exhibition curated by the magazine Starye gody and the tenacity of Liphart, who took advantage of one of his articles dedicated to the Italian section to affirm: “On the opposite side of the stage there is a small Madonna that I attribute with decision to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), despite all the clamor that will be caused by this statement of mine… “In fact the reactions were not lacking, but once a series of doubts and uncertainties had been overcome, the scholars recognized the authorship of Leonardo which today is indisputable.

As Tatiana Kustiodieva recalls in her beautiful essay, Adolfo Venturi wrote at the time: “I, the undersigned, confirm that the painting by the Benois family depicting a “Madonna with Child” and attributed to Leonardo is irrefutably his youthful work. I studied it carefully during my last trip to Russia. The face of the Virgin with her pure and childlike appearance, as well as the search for the essence of forms, are a very clear demonstration of this kind of characterization. The Child Jesus, still of the verrocchiesco type, for its large proportions does not correspond to a mother so young and so particular: all this speaks of an early date of the creation of this work. Here you can find the confluence of ancient pre-packaged forms and new research, which meet with great vivacity and freshness in the original face of the mother-child. All this together makes me, the undersigned, affirm that this work should be considered among the rare works of a genius at the beginning. Even Leonardo’s youthful drawings, compared to the “Madonna Benois”, oblige me to consider this wonderful painting his work, and I admit that he deserves a place in any museum in Europe”.

When in 1913 Marija Nikolaevna Benois decided to put the painting up for sale she was offered by a Parisian antique dealer a sum greater than what the Russian government was able to pay; however, the owner wanted Leonardo’s painting to remain in Russia and agreed to sell it, even in installments, for the relatively modest price of 150,000 rubles (thus renouncing about 37,000 rubles). Public opinion carried out a broad campaign in favor of the acquisition of the painting by the Hermitage and finally in 1914 the work crossed the threshold of the imperial museum.

Also “La Madonna Benois”, as well as other Leonardo’s works, is the result of a long research, as shown by some drawings related to the painting. In them the artist seeks, on the basis of a unifying object, the most convincing relationship between the figures, a relationship that can be a vase of fruit, or a cat that the child moves away or squeezes. Even today, the more we observe the picture, the more fascinating is the spontaneity and charm of the mother child.

“The Madonna came down from the throne on which the artists of the fifteenth century had placed her – writes Kustodieva – and went to sit on a bench in a room of an inhabited house. It remains the traditional tent that goes down behind Maria’s back, which from a sign of a ceremonial, or symbol of the upper spheres, has become a fabric covering the back of a chair. The room is described with great parsimony, but Leonardo pays tribute to his time by considering with the attention of a fifteenth century details such as Maria’s curls, the brooch, the fragile flower petals, the nail heads in the window frame. Each object does not exist for itself and thanks to light it participates in a single environment. ”

Unlike his contemporaries Leonardo concentrates his attention on what is fundamental, because: “A good painter – notes Leonardo in the” Treatise on Painting “- must paint two main things: man and the representation of his soul. The first is easy, the second is difficult, since it must be represented by gestures and movements of the limbs of the body “.


Promoter: Maria Francesca Merloni, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Creative Cities

In collaboration with: City of Fabriano, The State Hermitage Museum, Ermitage Italia

Thanks to: Municipality of Milan

General Management: Grand Soleil

Organization: Il Cigno GG Edizioni, International Global Village

With the support of: Ariston Thermo Group, Intesa Sanpaolo



From 1 to 30 June 2019; inauguration 01 June 2019, 4.30 pm;


FABRIANO, (AN) Pinacoteca Bruno Molajoli

Piazza Giovanni Paolo II

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From 10 to 16 June: Monday-Sunday 10 – 23


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