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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La Bella Vita: Italian trains, book fairs and perfecting your pizza order

From seeing Italy by rail to ordering pizza like a true Neapolitan, our new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Italian trains, book fairs and perfecting your pizza order

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really not a big fan of dubbing: the ubiquitous Italian film voiceover which gives famous Hollywood actors voices nothing like their own and leaves their lips moving out of sync with their speech. Some people say they like dubbing as it gives them a chance to practise Italian listening skills, others say they’d rather watch Italian-made films for that purpose. Personally I think it renders films unwatchable even if you speak Italian well, since the effect is so distracting and unsettling.

Either way, you don’t get much choice at the cinema. Almost all foreign-language films are still dubbed in Italy – a practice which began in the early 20th century amid widespread illiteracy and was enthusiastically embraced by Fascist propagandists in the 1930s. It’s not clear why these voiceovers are still so popular in Italy today, but if you’re anything like me you may be pleased to know that there are, at least sometimes, alternatives. We looked at where and how you can watch films in English or other languages in Italy:

Is there a way to see films without dubbing in Italy? 

If you prefer the written word, Italy has myriad book fairs, and literary festivals held annually all over the country. They’re not always well known outside of the country, because most of these events focus on Italian writers and require good knowledge of Italian, though some feature at least a few talks in English.

There are dozens of festivals taking place up and down Italy this year. We’ve put together a small selection of the best fairs and festivals to attend in Italy in 2023 (and beyond).

Eight of Italy’s best book fairs and literary festivals in 2023

The picturesque town of Tuscania, Lazio. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

If you’re planning a trip to Rome this year, or if you live in Rome and fancy a weekend adventure this spring, the surrounding region of Lazio is absolutely brimming with fascinating places to visit just a short drive or train journey from the city.

Lazio is overlooked by most visitors in favour of its northern neighbours Tuscany and Umbria – which means many places here are often lesser known and unlikely to be crowded. We couldn’t fit all of our favourite spots onto one list, so we’ve concentrated on the northern and western areas, but please feel free to add any of your own suggestions in the comments section at the bottom of this article.

14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

Train travel is a scenic, safe and usually speedy option for hopping between major cities in Italy, particularly in the north and centre of the country. If you’re planning to use Italy’s rail network on your next trip, here’s a guide to the routes, tickets, companies, costs and everything else you’ll need to know to make sure your journey goes smoothly.

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And everyone knows how to order a pizza… right? In Italy you might find this can be a slightly more complex process than expected, particularly if you venture far from the tourist trail.

Do you know your rossa from your bianca? What about the different types of impasto? Then there’s the toppings loved in Italy – but not so much elsewhere. Here are a few things to be aware of if you want to navigate the pizzeria menu like you’ve lived in Naples all your life.

Five tips for ordering pizza in Italy

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Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]