The Louvre Museum’s much-hyped Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, which opens in October, is expected to outshine other events to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the genius.
But three lesser-known Italian museums have snagged two prized da Vinci paintings from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Hermitage will lend a “Madonna and Child” painting known as the Benois Madonna to a municipal museum in Fabriano, a medieval town in the Marche region, to coincide with a Unesco conference in June. After being on view for a month there, the painting will be exhibited for most of July at the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. (That stop came in exchange for a work by Piero della Francesca lent to the Hermitage for a show earlier this year.)
The Hermitage will lend another painting, known as the Litta Madonna, to the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, to be the centerpiece of a show on da Vinci’s Milanese circle that will open in November.
Cities around the world are commemorating the anniversary of Leonardo’s death, on May 2, 1519, with exhibitions, conferences and other events, including a private auction this fall of the first vintage made from a Milanese vineyard that once belonged to da Vinci.
Prolific as da Vinci was in his writings, fewer than 30 paintings have been attached to his name, and about half of those have not been universally accepted as his autograph, raising the cachet of exhibiting an authentic masterpiece this year. Museums that own da Vincis have been ardently wooed to temporarily part with their masterpieces, with varying results. The Vatican Museums, for example, will lend “St. Jerome Praying in the Wilderness,” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition opening July 15, but the Uffizi Gallery of Florence has denied requests for its three da Vincis because they are too fragile to travel.
Lara Anniboletti, a spokeswoman for the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, said the museum wanted to “offer its own contribution” to the da Vinci commemorations. “It made sense to ask the Hermitage for a work that would relate to this important event,” she said.
For the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, the loan of the Litta Madonna is a bit of a homecoming: The Hermitage bought the painting in 1865, from the collection of Count Antonio Litta. Attribution of the work to da Vinci has not been unanimous, and at the Poldi Pezzoli, it will be shown alongside another work from the Litta collection, a “Virgin and Child” by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, an artist who worked in da Vinci’s Milanese studio and who has been identified by some experts as the Litta Madonna’s possible author.
Da Vinci spent his final years in France, which is why many of his paintings ended up in the Louvre. But he worked in Milan for 20 years — when he painted the Litta Madonna — and left a profound mark on the city. The Poldi Pezzoli exhibition will also include paintings and drawings by the artists in his circle.
“We have a nucleus of works by Leonardo’s followers, and we wanted to investigate this group of artists who worked closely with him during his Milanese period, carrying out his ideas, using his techniques,” said Andrea di Lorenzo, the museum’s conservator. “It was a time of great experimentation.”