Mysterious Masterpieces


An excellent exhibition of paintings by Lorenzo Lotto left Washington last March and, after traveling to Bergamo, went to the Grand Palais in Paris, where it was finely installed. Meanwhile an equally fine exhibition, similar in its ideal size of about fifty paintings, of works by Dosso Dossi, which began in Ferrara, has recently opened in New York1 and will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The two artists were contemporaries (Lotto 1480-1557, Dosso 1486?-1557), but their careers were utterly different. The styles of both of them are in general related to that of the Venetian school of the High Renaissance—Lotto was born in the city and spent several years working there and Dosso paid many visits and was, for a time, in close touch with Titian. But there is no evidence of any contact, direct or indirect, between them. However, two small allegorical paintings by the young Lotto in the National Gallery of Art in Washington share with a number of paintings by Dosso a magic of a very special kind—small, mysterious figures in romantic landscapes, illuminated by Wordsworth’s “light that never was on sea or land/The consecration, and the poet’s dream”—a magic that is likely to make a similar appeal to connoisseurs. In fact, the same Anglo-Italian team (Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco) has been responsible for both exhibitions,2 and it is difficult to imagine that anyone visiting either or both in any of their locations will not have found the experience an intense one—as well as unusual, almost haunting, in a way that we no longer expect when looking at sixteenth-century Italian paintings in museums and galleries.

Such a reaction is obviously due in part to the fact that these artists are less familiar than most of the great masters of the Renaissance but is surely caused also by our dawning appreciation of the genuine, but very different, idiosyncrasies to be discerned in the works of both of them. It is tempting to draw a loose parallel between the nature of their appeal to us and that of Botticelli to certain art lovers of the middle of the nineteenth century who, well before he had become immensely fashionable, were becoming aware of the fact that his pictures were of a different kind from those of the fifteenth-century Florentine painters who were once again being held up, as they had been by Vasari hundreds of years earlier, as admirable pioneers on the road to progress. Moreover, by a strange coincidence, both exhibitions raise particularly intriguing questions about the way controversial documentary evidence can affect our responses to what we like to think of as the purely visual impact made by works of art.

Beautiful as were all the paintings in the Lotto exhibition—in feeling, in color, in design—most of them seem different from the works of Giorgione, Titian, Palma Vecchio, and other Venetian masters in one very striking way. They convey an impression not of serenity and sensuality, but of…

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