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Bernardino Luini

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Milanese painter, b. between 1470 and 1480; d. after 1530. The actual facts known respecting the life history of this delightful painter are very few. We are not even certain that his name was Luini, as he himself uses the Latin form Lovinus, and Vasari calls hiim in one place, del Lupino, and in another di Lupino. As Luini he has, however, been generally known, and his birth is stated to have taken place at Luino, where there still remain certain frescoes of simple work, said to have been amongst his earliest productions. All we do know about him is that in 1507 he was a master with many commissions, that in 1512 he was working at Chiravalle and Milan, that he is referred to in the archives of Legnano in 1516, that he was at work in the Great Monastery at Milan for Count Bentivoglio between 1522 and 1524, that he was at Saronno in 1525, that in 1529 and 1530 he was at work at Lugano and in the side chapel of the Great Monastery at Milan, and that he is said to have died, according to one authority in 1532, and according to another in 1533, whilst a manuscript preserved at Saronno seems to imply, although it does not actually state it as a fact, that Luini was alive and residing at that place in 1547. Beyond these facts everything is conjecture. The inhabitants of Luino point to an old house in an open space at the top of a steep road as his birthplace. They have called two of the streets of the town after his name, and there are three tradesmen in the place bearing the same name, and claiming direct descent from the painter.

The frescoes in Luino are characteristic of the painter's work in many respects, exemplifying his strange faults of composition, but possessing a general sense of immaturity, and there seems considerable probability that the Luino traditions respecting them and the birth of the painter, are accurate. We have no evidence that he was a pupil of Leonardo. Influenced, of course, he was by the great painter, and in certain respects–more particularly in his "Christ crowned with Thorns" at Milan, and in certain pictures of the Virgin and Child, notably those at Saronno–he comes exceedingly close in style to Leonardo, while in colouring, design, effect of relief, and depth of feeling, he approaches more nearly to that master than any other artist of the period. His works, however, show a sweetness and an intense fervour of devotion marking them out from those of Leonardo. There is no sign of the mysterious Leonardo smile, nor of the semi-pagan quality which at times is so marked in Leonardo's female figures. Luini was evidently not a philosopher nor a man of deep intellectual discernment, but one of sweet disposition, simple mind, and lofty religious belief. He lacked, no doubt, coherence and skill in composition where many figures are required, but he possessed to a supreme degree the power to create emotion, and to produce upon those who looked at his pictures the still, quiet, religious quality at which he aimed. His earliest fresco work was probably that done for the Casa Pelucca near Monza, now to be seen either in the Brera, the Louvre, or in one or two private collections, one fragment only remaining at the villa itself. Some of his most beautiful frescoes were included in this scheme of decoration. Probably after this work came the various frescoes done for churches and monasteries at Milan, now to be seen in the Brera, because the religious houses in question have either been closed or destroyed. One of the most important is the Madonna with St. Anthony and St. Barbara, signed with the Latin signature and dated 1521.

Another scheme of decoration he carried out was that for the Casa Litta, the frescoes from which are now to be seen in the Louvre. They include the life-size, half-length Christ, one of Luini's most important works. Less known than these works, however, are those which Luini did at Chiaravalle near Rogoredo, executed in 1512 and 1515, concerning which one or two documents have been recently discovered, giving us the stipend paid to the artist for the work. The largest fresco, however, of this period is the magnificent "Coronation of Our Lord", painted for the Confraternity of the Holy Crown, and now to be seen in the Ambrosian Library. The document concerning it tells us distinctly that the work was commenced on 22 March, 1522–a veritable tour de force, as the fresco is of large size, crowded with figures, evidently most of them portraits, and contains in the figure of the Redeemer one of the greatest works Luini ever produced. Unfortunately, the dignity of the central figure is rather diminished by the statuesque grandeur of the six kneeling figures representing the members of the confraternity who commissioned the work.

By far the most notable work, however, which Luini ever executed was the decoration in the church of St. Maurice , known as the Old Monastery, commenced for Giovanni Bentivoglio and his wife, and commemorative of the fact that their daughter took the veil in this church, and entered the monastery with which it was connected. The whole of the east end of the church, including the high altar, was decorated by Luini, and the effect is superb. He returned to the same church in 1528 to decorate the chapel of St. Maurice for Francesco Besozzi, and the whole of the interior of this chapel is covered with his exquisite work, the Flagellation scene and the two frescoes of St. Catherine being of remarkable beauty, and the entire chapel a shrine to the great painter. It is impossible to recount here all Luini's important works, but his frescoes in the sanctuary at Saronno are in their way almost as great as the decoration at the Great Monastery, and perhaps the polyptych at Legnano is even more important than either of them, so sumptuous is it in its colouring and so exquisite in its religious feeling.

Of his other work in oil, perhaps the chief and finest cabinet picture is the "Madonna of the Rose Hedge", but it is by fresco work that the artist will always be known, for, exquisite though many of his oil panels may be, yet, by reason of their fine detailed work, minute execution, and high surface, with a very smooth quality, they lack the charm of beauty which belongs to the fresco with its greater breadth and strength and its lower scheme of colouring. Nothing in the fresco work can be finer than the 1530 lunette at Legnano, showing the Madonna, the Divine Child, and St. John the Baptist. Fortunately, the entry in the books of the convent concerning the payment for this fresco can still be seen; it was spread over a long time, and was trifling at the best. In that payment we have our last authoritative statement concerning the painter. True, Salvatori, a Capuchin monk, said that in a convent near Milan there was a picture dated 1547, which Luini commenced, and his son Aurelio finished, while Orlandi, in the Abecedario, definitely states that the painter was alive in 1540–to the Saronno document we have already referred–but from 1533 Luini vanishes into silence, and we can only conjecture concerning any later years. He was the supreme master of fresco work, and had an exquisite feeling for loveliness of form, with a deep sense of the pathos, sorrow, and suffering of life. He was not subtle or profound, his works were not archaic, as were those of Foppa and Borgognone, nor architectural, as those of Bramantino, although from all three men he doubtless derived impressions. His composition is not always well-balanced and is never as rich as that of Sodoma. His colouring is neither luscious nor voluptuous, and especially in his frescoes, quiet, simple, and at times pale and cold, but his pictures invariably, like a note of music, draw a corresponding chord from the heart–a chord which is, at the will of the painter, bright with joy or tremulous with sorrow and grief. He appeals notably to those who pray, and to those who weep, and reveals by his work that he was a man of intense personal feeling, and had an intimate knowledge of the mysteries alike of great joy and bitter sorrow.

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