Century Magazine/Volume 44/Issue 1/Italian Old Masters. Luini

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Cantury Mag Illuminated I Luini.png
t is a curious commentary on the artistic discrimination of the sixteenth century that one of the sweetest of its painters was so unknown in his own day that there is no record of his birth or of his death. We know so little of Luini's life and circumstances that if we would have a biography, we must construct one from the internal evidence of his works. The first signed picture is a Madonna in the Brera Gallery of Milan, of 1521, and this seems to mark a point of departure, and serves to divide hypothetically his unripened work from that by which we estimate his powers. He has always been considered a pupil of Da Vinci, but we have no other evidence of this than the character of his work. Only six of his pictures are dated, moreover, so that we have hardly the data for an authoritative classification of them. The singular and salient fact of Luini's artistic existence is that for so many years he was so completely confounded with Da Vinci that there are more of his pictures which have passed for the work of Leonardo than we have of Leonardo's own. It is possible that the fixing of his style in 1521 was a consequence of his having come into contact with Da Vinci. That he did actually profit by the instruction of the master is most probable, for the similarity of technic which has been the cause of the confusion between the two painters could hardly have come merely from a general impression of the elder painter's work. Studio traditions are to be acquired only in the studio; and Da Vinci had so many pupils that Luini and many others might easily escape mention. In that region and time the genius of the master so overshadowed all other talent or reputation that a man in poor circumstances, and of obscure position, such as Luini, would hardly attract the attention of a society accustomed to brilliant achievement and showy qualities, to which Luini never attained. His tender sentiment and delicate drawing are not of the kind of art which attracts the careless observer, and that his work has come down almost to our own day without the distinction it merits is the best proof that he was not of those who catch the public eye at any period.

The work supposed to be his earliest is in the Brera Gallery and the Royal Palace, Milan; it consists of a number of fragments of frescos from the Casa Pelucca near Monza. They are mostly subjects from the Old Testament, but there is a series of mythological subjects, as an Apollo and Daphne, etc. The frescos of Sta. Maria della Pace, which are now in the Brera, or in the Museum of Archeology, are supposed by Mongeri to have been painted about 1524, and to be the next in order to those of the Casa Pelucca, as they show the painter's peculiarities of style, while those of the former series vary so much as to have given the idea to Cavalcaselle that they were painted in coöperation with Suardi, hose children and those of Luini (the latter had three sons who became painters) painted in much the same manner. Luini was a poor man with a large family, and executed a very great number of works, those of the earlier period being mostly, so far as distinguishable, in fresco, and, whether from haste, as a result of being poorly paid, or from being carried out by pupils, of very unequal execution. But he was capable of very rapid work; thus the "Flagellation" in the Ambrosiana, a fresco occupying one side of the chapter-hall, was begun in October, 1521, and finished in March of the next year. The "Flagellation" occupies the center, with portraits of six donors on each side, all excellent examples of portraiture.

After 1522 Luini was called out of Milan to work, and painted in Legnano an altar-piece in fifteen compartments. In 1525 he was invited to paint in the Church of the Blessed Virgin of Saronno, near Milan, where he worked in company with Gaudenzio and two other painters; and on his return to Milan he was commissioned by the Bentivogli, the dethroned lords of Bologna, to paint the partition wall of the Church of St. Maurizio, by which they wished to show their recognition, in their exile from their own realm, of the hospitality of their kinsmen the Sforzas. One of the subjects is St. Benedict leading Alessandro Bentivoglio to the altar, and an other is St. Agnes performing the same office for his wife, who was Hippolyta Sforza. In the cloister of the church he painted a series from the Passion, of which the Crucifixion was in oil. From Milan he went again, in 1529, to Lugano, where he painted a Passion, in which the principal scenes of the Agony are enacted in the background while the Crucifixion takes place in the foreground. Dohme considers the figures of the Magdalen and St. John to be among the finest in Italian art. Here the painter introduces as a centurion the supposed portrait of himself, and as the same head occurs in another picture, the "Adoration," at Saronno, Dohme very reasonably accepts it as the authentic portrait, rejecting the traditional portrait in the "Christ among the Doctors," in the Church of the Blessed Virgin of Saronno. There is record of his painting at Lugano in 1529–30 and in 1533, and the last date is the latest note of the existence of the painter.

Ruskin deserves the credit of having been one of the earliest to give Luini full justice. He considers him a better draftsman than Da Vinci, but this is a judgment the justice of which depends on definitions. If we are to take into consideration all the qualities of the artistic expression of form, it cannot be maintained, and in subtlety of line alone it can hardly be held, for when he had a form to follow no one could surpass Da Vinci; but in the feeling for beauty of line and tender expression coupled with subtle drawing, I believe that Luini justifies the praise of the critic.

Note by Timothy Cole on the "St. Apollonia" of Luini.[edit]

Luini is seen at his best in Milan, where are found latest works—those of his third, or "blond," manner, in which he attains his fullest strength and independence. The Church of Monastero Maggiore, formerly St. Maurizio, is a very temple of his art.

Luini's "blond" manner is a warmer and less heavy style of coloring than he had previously practised; the name does not imply that his frescos are any more blond, generally speaking, than those of any other artist.

The detail given, St. Apollonia, is part of one of the painter's most beautiful single-figure pieces, a fresco to the right of the high altar in the Church of Monastero Maggiore. I was much struck with the grace and ease of the pose; but the beauty of the face, so tender and full of emotion, made me wish to engrave this part alone. I have made, however, a three-quarter length, thus giving the head larger than it would have been had I done the whole figure, as well as showing the composition of the principal motive. Much of the expression of a face is necessarily lost in engraving it on a small scale on wood.

The attribute of St. Apollonia is a pair of pincers holding a tooth, in allusion to the torture she suffered in having all her teeth extracted previously to being burned. She is the patron saint of sufferers from toothache. Besides the pincers, she holds the book as significant of her learning, and she bears the martyr's palm.

The fresco measures six feet high by two feet seven inches wide. To appreciate the full value of the coloring one must get within the altar-railing, for the effect of the slanting light from without causes a delicate purple bloom to suffuse the whole of the surface, and this, though very beautiful, conveys a false impression. I had not suspected anything wrong until I got within the railing, when I found that the under-robe, which I had taken to be of a charming purple hue, was in fact dark brown. In like manner the other colors were more or less affected. The sleeve of the saint is pea-green, of a light, delicate, lively tone, soft and very pleasant to the eye. Her mantle which falls over her shoulder, is of a bright orange, yet neutralized to harmonize delightfully with the rest. The lining of this mantle, turned up by the elbow, is of a soft, neutral tone of blue. The lining of the robe falling beneath the arm is of the same tone of blue, but its exterior is of a fine crimson, softened and glowing. A portion of this robe falls over the left shoulder, displaying its lining of soft blue. The cover of the book is green. The background of the whole is of a soft, dark sea-green, its inner square of a soft blackish tone tinged delicately so as to suggest a reddish feeling. ~17he hair of the saint is of a warm silvery color, and the flesh-tints are soft and warm. The combination of the whole is very delightful and charming. The best way to appreciate the beautiful glow of the picture is to stand at a little distance and to view it through a tube, shutting out all else, and thus concentrating the vision upon it.

St. Apollonia, by Luini.
In the Church of Monastero Maggiore, Milan.