Leonardo Da Vinci’s Benois Madonna to make rare return to Italy

One of Leonardo Da Vinci's earliest paintings, the Benois Madonna, is to return to Italy next month for only the second time in 200 years, in honour of the artist's 500th anniversary.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Benois Madonna to make rare return to Italy
The Benois Madonna usually hangs in the Hermitage Museum. Photo: chrisdorney/DepositPhotos

Also known as the Madonna and Child with Flowers, the painting will go on display in two museums in central Italy for a total of two months.

The picture is on loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, where it has hung for most of the past 100 years. Bought by a Russian collector in the late 18th century, since then it has returned to Italy just once before, for an exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 1984.

READ ALSO: In the footsteps of genius: A travel guide to Leonardo Da Vinci's Italy

While most would expect the star exhibit to go on show in one of Italy's biggest museums, it will instead hang in the town art gallery in Fabriano, a small city in the Marche region, from June 1st-30th, before moving to the Umbrian National Gallery in Perugia for the month of July.

The surprising choice is partly to coincide with a meeting of Unesco's 'Creative Cities' network taking place in Fabriano in June, but also because “in Italy there are no towns that aren't worthy of hosting great works of art, dotted as it is with villages that house unique artistic treasures”, commented the Hermitage's director, Mikhail Piotrovsky.

The museum is keen to give Italians “the chance to see the work of the world's greatest artists back at home”, he said.

Leonardo is thought to have been around 25 when he painted the intimate portrait, which measures just 49.5 by 33 centimetres. It shows the infant Jesus absorbed by a sprig of flowers held out to him by his mother in a touchingly realistic moment.

It is believed to be one of the first works that Leonardo composed and painted on his own without the guidance of his master, the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio. Several other artists subsequently copied the scene, most famously Raphael in his Madonna of the Pinks. 

The Benois Madonna gets its name from the Russian family who sold it to the Hermitage in 1914. The story goes that they purchased it from a troupe of Italian circus performers, though a more likely account says that they bought it at auction from the estate of art collector Alexei Korsakov, who is believed to have brought it to Russia from Italy in the 1790s.

The exhibition is one of hundreds of special events in Italy throughout the year to mark the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci's death, on May 2nd 1519.


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Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.