Considered to be among Leonardo da Vinci’s most important pupils, Bernardino Luini is even more mysterious than his celebrated master. Though the basic details of his biography remain uncertain, he left an accomplished and impressive oeuvre. Although the relationship between them has never been conclusively documented, Vasari mentions Luini among Leonardo’s Milanese followers, while Vasari’s emulator Lomazzo tells us that Luini’s son, Aurelio possessed a small book (untraced) containing about 50 caricatures drawn in red chalk by Leonardo, and also owned Leonardo’s celebrated cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John (London, National Gallery). Bernardino Luini certainly made a painted copy of the cartoon, which lends credence to the idea that he may at some point have owned it, perhaps as a gift from Leonardo himself. Luini’s style is so indebted to Leonardo’s, that some of his most famous works have in the past been attributed to Leonardo himself.
Once considered to be by Leonardo da Vinci, the Madonna of the Grapevine was first correctly attributed to Bernardino Luini by Angela Ottino della Chiesa in 1956, when it was in the Genoese collection of Angelo Costa. Ottino della Chiesa defined the work as an ‘intersection of the local tradition with Leonardesque influence’, and hailed it as one of the masterpieces of the Luini’s early maturity, dating it to the 1510s (op. cit.). This view was seconded by Aldo Bertini in 1962 (op. cit.), who aligned it with the artist’s frescoes for Villa Pelucca in Sesto San Giovanni (now housed in Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera). Mazzini (op. cit., 1957) considered it an early work, while Cristina Quattrini (op. cit., 2004) proposed a dating of circa 1515, the same moment as the cycle for the chapel of Saint Joseph in Santa Maria della Pace. Most recently, Alessandro Ballarin (op. cit., 2010) has suggested a relationship with the Magadino polyptych, implying a dating no later than the conclusion of the first decade of the 16th century.
The theme of the Madonna seated on a rock or earthy bank, with a view to a receding landscape behind, was favoured by the artist, and ultimately derives from Venetian examples such as the Madonna of the Meadow by Giovanni Bellini (London, National Gallery), or the Madonna by Giorgione in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg. Amongst many recurrences in Luini’s oeuvre, the fresco for the Certosa (Charterhouse) of Pavia is particularly close to the present composition. The motif of the spring, with its allusion to the Baptism, is of course inspired by Leonardo’s famous Virgin of the Rocks (two versions: Paris, Louvre; and London, National Gallery), which Luini may have observed in the process of its creation (see Ballarin, op. cit., p. 157). The arrangement of the Christ Child and the little finch are traditional allusions to the Passion, while the grapevine refers to the Eucharist and to the Salvation brought about by Christ’s sacrifice. It is possible that this work was commissioned by a member of the Milanese confraternity of the Corpo di Cristo, which would offer one explanation for the poetically conceived allegorical content. Luini’s connections to this confraternity are attested by his commission to decorate the chapel of the Santissimo Sacramento di San Giorgio, and possibly by works such as The Drunkenness of Noah (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) and the Pietà in Houston (Museum of Fine Arts).