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);