The painting represents Holy Family with St. Anne behind the Virgin and young St. John the Baptist on the right, in front of St. Joseph.
It was first mentioned on September 15, 1697 by Federico Borromeo when it was added to his will written in 1599, which makes it possible that the work entered cardinal’s collections between these two dates. The work is evidently a copy of the cartoon with St. Anne, Madonna, baby Jesus and St. John by Leonardo da Vinci (preserved at the National Gallery of London) dated between 1501 and 1505, and its derivation was registered by cardinal Borromeo himself.
Compared to Leonardo’s work, Luini added Joseph’s figure on the right, closing this way the composition but keeping almost entirely unchanged the proportions of the original work. The master’s cartoon returned to Milan in 1530 with Francesco Melzi and probably belonged to Luini himself. In fact, the sources recall years later the work was owned by Aurelio Luini, son of Bernardino.
Luini made another modification compared to the original work by changing Mary’s posture, making her seem less like she was sitting on St. Anne’s lap, which is a detail that certainly represented the most striking iconographic novelty in Florentine master’s work.
On his guide book “Musaeum” Federico Borromeo tells of the great prestige of this artwork: it was considered a work with devotion to delicacy and compassion, paid dearly as one of the best examples of the artist, and with traces of two great masters, Luini and Leonardo, both painters for whom the cardinal was implementing a recovery policy by promoting the reproduction of their works through copies.
Unfortunately, these same features which were so loved by the cardinal of Milan have received not so positive critic in the following centuries, as they were considered as a technique of practice which made the work one of the least interesting examples by Luini. .
Nowadays the criticism has re-evaluated this splendid painting, and it’s considered a central piece of Luini’s period of reinterpretation of Leonardo’s work, dating to the same period when Melzi brought the master’s works back to Milan (around 1520). This indication dates the work to the middle of the second decade of the sixteenth century.
Beltrami L., Luini 1512-1532, Milano 1911, pp. 526, 555-557;
Berenson B., Pitture Italiane del Rinascimento. Catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi, trad. di Emilio Cecchi, Milano 1936, p. 272;
Ottino Della Chiesa A., Bernardino Luini, Novara 1956, pp. 37, 104, n. 132;
Fiorio M.T., Leonardeschi in Lombardia, Milano 1982, p. 36;
Marani P.C., Leonardo e i leonardeschi nei musei della Lombardia, Milano 1990, p. 96;
Morandotti A., Il revival leonardesco nell’età di Federico Borromeo, in I leonardeschi a Milano : fortuna e collezionismo, Atti del Convegno Internazionale (Milano settembre 1990), a c. di M.T. Fiorio e P.C. Marani, Milano 1991, pp. 167-169;
Bora G., Bernarino Luini, in I leonardeschi. L’eredità di Leonardo in Lombardia, Milano 1998, p. 356;
Bora G., in Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Tomo primo-Dipinti dal medioevo alla metà del Cinquecento, Milano 2005, cat. 49, pp. 162-165 (con bibliografia precedente);
Bernardino Luini was born in Dumenza near Luino between 1481 and 1482. Details of his life have been only emerged recently, even though there are still many open questions. He was the son of Donato di Bernardo de Schapis also known as Monlone. It is not known whether Bernardino was born from the first or second marriage. He lived in Dumenza until 1489 taking care of the family farm and then following his father in Milan around 1500 (a document from 1500 indicates his stay in Milan in the parish of S. Carpoforo).
In 1504 he married Margherita de Lomatio and they had four children, of whom two became painters. On a document Lomazzo recalls him Giovan Stefano Scotto’s student together with Gaudenzio Ferrari, whereas some other sources recall him as Gaudenzio’s master. Vasari mentions him in both editions of Lives (1550-1568) in Boccaccino’s biography describing him “very delicate” artist. Bernardino was one of the biggest followers of Leonardo’s painting, whose works he interpreted in his own works.
His works were deeply admired until the nineteenth century, particularly by the French school at the end of the century and they returned to limelight when Roberto Longhi, one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century, made a modern revaluation (ca. 1940) and described Luini as not a shameless imitator of Leonardo’s work but a “misunderstood” independent painter, who should be among the greatest artists in the history of art.
He probably traveled to Rome to study during the first decade of the sixteenth century and immediately after to Treviso in Veneto. After his return to Milan he worked mainly for private commissions and he came into contact with new Lombard masters such as Zenale and especially Bramantino. During this period, he made the frescoes of the Villa de La Pelucca near Sesto San Giovanni, commissioned by Gerolamo Rabia, and those in the Palazzo di Piazza S. Sepolcro in Milan (both have been detached and they are preserved today in Pinacoteca di Brera, Gemaldegalerie of Berlin and National Gallery of Washington).
Between 1510 and 1512 he worked at Certosa di Pavia. During this period he made the famous Madonna del Roseto of Pinacoteca di Brera, a perfect mix of Zenale and Leonardo’s styles.
Bernardino’s later works are characterized by greater depth and more persuasive style, which were certainly influenced by his trip to Rome and his encounter with Raphael.
Around 1521-1523 he began to work on the frescoes depicting St. Maurice at Monastero Maggiore in Milan. The frescoes were commissioned by Alessandro Bentivoglio and Ippolita Sforza, whose coat of arms are visible, and they were inspired by Central-Italian art and at some parts even by Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel.
His following work was the cycle of frescoes for the Maggiore chapel of the sanctuary of Saronno, and the frescoes in Santa Maria degli Angeli of Lugano, dated 1529, which recalled the theatrical works by Gaudenzio Ferrari. During these years he received numerous commissions from private buyers, which are nowadays spread all over the world in public and private collections.
Bernardino Luini died on 1 July in 1532.
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.
It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.
In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.
The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.
The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.
Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.
There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).
A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.
After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.
During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.