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Leonardo da Vinci, 'The Benois Madonna', between 1478 and 1480. Oil on canvas, 49.5 cm × 33 cm (19.5 in × 13 in), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

FABRIANO.- In the year of the 500th anniversary of his death, the youth masterpiece of the Tuscan Maestro returns to Italy, 35 years after his only exhibition at the 13th UNESCO Creative Cities Network Annual Conference in Fabriano. The Hermitage therefore, unlike others, has chosen to celebrate the genius of the great Italian artist in his native country, with exceptional works starting with the "Madonna Benois" in Fabriano, where the precious pieces of art are on display at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Fabriano of Marche until 30 June 2019. 

Conceived and promoted by Maria Francesca Merloni, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Creative Cities with the State Hermitage Museum, the event takes place in collaboration with the City of Fabriano, the Pinacoteca Civica of Fabriano and Hermitage Italia, under the patronage of the MiBAC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. The exhibition is curated by the art historian Carlo Bertelli and Tatiana Kustodieva, chief researcher of the Department of Western European Art at the Hermitage and co-organized by Il Cigno GG Edizioni and Villaggio Globale International; the catalog, co-edited by Il Cigno GG Edizioni e Skira, makes use of scientific contributions, as well as the curators, of Elena Kostioukovitch, Pierluigi Panza and Maria Teresa Fiorio. The general direction of the exhibition is by Grand Soleil, with the support of Ariston Thermo Group and Intesa Sanpaolo. 

In Fabriano, the exhibition of this extraordinary work is the main event of the cultural program of the 13th 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, 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 Italy’s creative 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 Prof. Michail Piotrovsky, Director General of the State Hermitage Museum from St. Petersburg - because in Italy there are no cities that do not deserve great masterpieces, studded as it is with villages that preserve unique artworks; it is no coincidence that this year small towns such as Matera and Fabriano were voted 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 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 will do it with Raphael. As for Leonardo Fabriano it is the beginning. A magnificent beginning. The Benois Madonna will eventually go to Perugia while the Litta Madonna will arrive in Milan. This is the cultural policy followed by the Hermitage " 

"The Benois Madonna", an 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 Lady 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- writes Carlo Bertelli - did not create a static and devotional image, he only paused on 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 masterpiece so full of future developments ”. 

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Leonardo da Vinci, 'The Benois Madonna', detail , between 1478 and 1480. Oil on canvas, 49.5 cm × 33 cm (19.5 in × 13 in), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

THE BENOIS MADONNA, LEONARDO’S YOUTH MASTERPIECE 
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 perspective to the principles of optics, up to anatomy - 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 Benois Madonna" 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, the great expert of Italian art Ernest Karlovich von Liphart, and from the love of country of the owner Marija Aleksandrovna Benois (Benua, born Sapožnikova), wife of the famous St. Petersburg-born architect Leontij Nikolaevič 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 Sapožnikov, 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 the 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 legend about the origin of the work, which for a long time was thought to have been purchased by Marija Aleksandrovna's grandfather from a company of wandering actors, the precious, small painting (48 x 37 cm), as 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; Sapožnikov 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 no. 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 made. 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 had 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 provoked by my statement ... " 

In fact, the reactions were not lacking, but once a series of doubts and uncertainties had been overcome, scholars recognized Leonardo's paternity, 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 Verrocchio-style 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 ".

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Leonardo da Vinci, 'The Benois Madonna', between 1478 and 1480. Oil on canvas, 49.5 cm × 33 cm (19.5 in × 13 in), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.