Carusel Tours
13 May 2020

Russian Madonnas of Leonardo da Vinci

Madonna Benois
Photo T. Camus

Mysterious stories behind the masterpieces in the Hermitage collection.

We launch the series of posts dedicated to the masterpieces from the Hermitage Collection, our national pride and one of the most important museums in the world. Here we will tell you about two Leonardo da Vinci's works.
Leonardo da Vinci is probably the most renowned artist of all times. Rather than being just a painter, he was a universal man (uomo universal), the pure embodiment of ideas of the Renaissance. Da Vinci was a genius artist who thought of himself more as of a scientist or an engineer.
Few words about Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was born near Vinci, Tuscany, on April 15, 1452. He was an illegitimate son of Piero Fruosino di Antonio, a notary, chancellor, and ambassador of the Florentine Republic, and a peasant Caterina. He spent the childhood in his father's family, but thanks to his illegitimate birth he could learn and practice painting, instead of the family business.

When Leonardo was 14 years old, he entered the studio of Verocchio, the renowned Florentine painter, who was also the teacher of Perugino and Botticelli. There he received excellent and multidisciplinary training. When Leonardo turned 20, he entered the San Luca Guild and obtained the qualification of the master of painting.

Legend has it that when Verrocchio saw the figure of an Angel painted by da Vinci for his Baptism of Christ, he admired his talent so much that he left this work incomplete and stopped painting forever.
Fragment from Ginevra de' Benci's portrait (National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Fragment from Ginevra de' Benci's portrait (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

How many paintings of Leonardo exist and how many are there in the Hermitage?

Leonardo left us many mysteries and ideas that were embodies throughout the following centuries, and only a few paintings. Today we know about 24 paintings and only 15 of them are 100% attributed to him (excluding his frescos, drawings and sketches). With such a modest number, imagine what it means for a museum to obtain a painting from the Master…

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, says " One can divide all the museums in the world on those that possess paintings by Leonardo and those that do not".

The Louvre has the largest collection of da Vinci paintings – 5 works altogether. The second largest collection belongs to the Hermitage. It has 2 paintings by Leonardo that are the emblems of the museums and symbols of art.
Hermitage Buildings on Palace Square in St. Petersburg
Hermitage Buildings on Palace Square in St. Petersburg

The formation of the Hermitage Collection and the Hermitage buildings

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is one of the mayor museums in the world. Its collections has more than 3 million pieces of art.

The main part of the collection is represented in 6 buildings along the Neva River embankment. These are the Winter Palace, Old (Grand) Hermitage, New Hermitage, Small Hermitage, Hermitage Theatre and recently added General Staff Building.

The museum was founded by empress Catherine the Great, who bought the collection of 225 peieces with the works by Dutch and Flemish masters from Johann Ernest Gotzkowski in Berlin in 1764. The collection was constantly growing and so fast, that several new buildings were constructed to house it.

In 1852 emperor Nicholas I decided to open the private collection to the public. He ordered to redesign the major part of the museum and make a separate entrance for the visitors. Of course, in that epoch it was mostly visited by the high society classes and students of the Imperial Academy of Arts. There was a special timetable for the visits.
In the 1850-s special showcases were constructed to display the objects from the Hermitage collection that have been preserved up to date.
Leonardo da Vinci Hall in the Hermitage
Leonardo da Vinci Hall in the Hermitage

Leonardo da Vinci Hall, situated in the Old Hermitage, is the masterpiece of interior design in itself. It is the largest hall in the Nevsky enfilade (the name derives from the Neva River that it is facing) and one of the most visited, too.

It always has the visitors who are admiring Madonna Benois and Madonna Litta. We are not going to describe the artistic qualities of these works, to appreciate them you must visit the museum in person and see them with your own eyes, but we will tell you about their provenance.

Both paintings are the images of Our Lady with the Child, their titles also bear the surnames of their owners. And how did these holy ladies get to Russia?
Madonna Litta
Madonna Litta

The Virgin with the Child Jesus or Madonna Litta was created between 1480-90 for the house of Visconti, the governors of Milan. It remained in Italy for several subsequent centuries and starting from 1813 it belonged to the Milanese family of Duques de Litta. This family was familiar Russia. One of its representatives, Julio Renatto, the cavalier of the Maltese Order, was acquainted with Paul I, who headed this order. Julio was also married to the niece of Count Potemkin, the lover of Catherine the Great.

Madonna Litta moved to St. Petersburg from Milan later. In 1864 the Milanese family offered to the Hermitage, that was opened to the general public, to buy their collection of 44 works of art. The museum bought only 4 works, paying the fortune for them, and Madonna of Leonardo was one of them. It arrived to St. Petersburg in a very bad state and required immediate restoration. The tempera painting was transferred from wood to the canvas. It was the first painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Hermitage.

This poetic painting is one of the principal works of the genius. Its purchase was a success for the Hermitage that quickly transferred to one of the leading art collections in the world!

However, some specialists doubt that Leonardo painted it solely. They think that he created it with the help of his student Boltraffio. At that time, there was nothing exceptional in the joint creation of a painting, it was a routine work and its final price depended on the master's contribution.

Apart from it, we know that Leonardo was finishing several works at the same time, judging from a great number of unfinished sketches and drawings. The Maestro might have left it to finish to one of his students, while pursuing other artistic or engineering projects.
The drawing of Madonna Litta's head from the Louvre Collection
The drawing of Madonna Litta's head from the Louvre Collection

It is believed that at least the head of the woman and the general composition of the painting were created by Leonardo. The figure of the baby, on the other hand, might have been painted by one of Leonardo's alumni according to his drawing. One of the preliminary drawings of the head of Madonna Litta is now in the Louvre Collection.
Leonardo's followers are called Leonardescos. They were either Leonardo's students, or those who were strongly influenced by his art. Giovanni Boltraffio is one of them, who focused on the key elements of his master's style - the use of sfumato, diffuse lighting, the melancholic beauty of the characters and the ambiguity of the faces.
Although Leonardo had many followers, there was not a single great painter among them who left the same impact on the history of painting as da Vinci. They were very talented painters who just repeated the ideas of the genius, but they were not able to get away from Leonardo's enormous influence and create something more individual.
Over the years, the visitors of the Hermitage and art historians are trying to uncover the enigma of the Master's authorship, and they spend the long hours in front of Madonna Litta.

In 1966 two Russian cinema directors, Pavel Kogan and Sergei Soloviev, filmed a 10-minute documentary Look At The Face. When Madonna Litta went back on display after the restoration works, they hid a camera behind the painting and filmed how the expressions of viewers changed when they saw it. This documentary was very popular and until today it is considered a good example of documentary cinema dedicated to art. Here you can watch it (it does not matter that it is in Russian):
Madonna Benois

The second Madonna of Leonardo in the Hermitage collection is one of the first works of the artist. It arrived to the museum almost in 50 years after Madonna Litta. It is known as Madonna and Child with Flowers or Madonna Benois.
Benois Madonna
This painting is likely one of the two Madonnas with Children that Leonardo started in October 1478, as he himself pointed out. The other would be Madonna of the Carnation in Munich. It seems that the Madonna in the Hermitage was the first work painted by Leonardo independently of his teacher, Verrocchio, and in oil, the new technique for that time. The British Museum has two preliminary sketches for this work. It was a popular work, copied by young Italian artists, including Rafael. His version, Madonna of the Pinks, was acquired in 2004 by the National Gallery in London.

At the same time, it is one of Leonardo's least studied works. We know that in the 16th century this painting was in the Florentine house of Matteo and Giovanni Botti. Then it appeared only in 1908 as part of the dowry of the wife of the famous architect Leon Benois, the representative of an important artistic family in the Russian Empire. His wife and the Madonna, thus, inherited his surname.

How did the Madonna Benois appear in Russia? Apparently it was brought to Russia from Italy, but when?

The Benois family believed that old Mr. Sapozhnikov, the father of Leon Benois' father-in-law, bought the painting from some Italian wandering musicians in Astrakhan, but it seems to be just a nice family legend.

The other version, which has recently emerged, is more realistic. According to it, Sapozhnikov bought the painting in 1824 at an auction where the property of General Alexei Korsakov was sold, for 1,400 rubles. Korsakov was an art lover, his collection included the works of Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt among others, but after his death his son decided to sell it. In the 1790s Korsakov visited Italy and could have bought Leonardo's Madonna there. The Hermitage also took part in this auction, where it bought some works by Millet but ignored this humble Italian painting.

When Leon Benois demonstrated his restored Madonna at an exhibition of the European art from the private collections of St. Petersburg in 1908, it caused a sensation! Ernst von Liphart, the main curator of the Hermitage, confirmed Leonardo's authority.

In 1912 the Benois family decided to sell the work and sent it to Europe to justify the authenticity again. The best museums in the world wanted to buy it. The Duveen Brothers, the influential antiquarians of that time, offered a good price of about 1 million dollars (500,000 francs), but the Benois accepted the proposal of the Hermitage and the Russian royal family, to keep the painting in Russia. Since 1914 our main museum owns two masterpieces by Leonardo, which is not a few, is it?

Although now it seems that the history of the Virgin with the Child and Flowers during the last 250 years is more or less clear, we know nothing of its life between the 16th and 18th centuries. Where was this mysterious and smiling lady hidden? Hopefully someday we will find it out. Who knows, may be among our readers there will be someone who will resolve this or another riddle of Leonardo, and there are many!

Come to St. Petersburg to visit the Hermitage and hear about other interesting stories! If you want to know more about any work from the Hermitage collection, ask us!
Visit of the Benois Family Apartment
Visit of the Benois Family Apartment

And by the way, the descendants of Leon Benois still live in St. Petersburg. Among them are many artists and musicians. You can visit their apartment in the house built to the design of Leon Benois on Vasilievski Island, where you will find the original furniture from the beginning of the 20th century and some pieces from the family collection. It is now the private museum and few foreigners know of its existence. If you want to feel the atmosphere of that time, listen to the stories of its inhabitants and see the place where Madonna Benois was hung before moving to the Hermitage, write us and we will help you plan this visit. If you're lucky, there you could also listen to the family concert!

Text Karina Matveeva
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Photo credits Anton Galakhov, Alexander Golovdinov, Yulia Volodina, Nikita Velikanin, Jakob Dalbjörn, Priscilla du Preez, Mikhail Vasiliev
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