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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 restlessness and tension. To some extent, of course, this is an inevitable consequence of the choice of pictures on view. With only a very few exceptions large, “public,” altarpieces—in which such characteristics are much less evident—have necessarily been excluded, and we are presented mainly with the far more private categories of portraits and devotional paintings.

Nonetheless, the impression of the singularity of Lotto’s art need not be misleading if we concentrate only on these two categories, for both were practiced by other Venetian painters, and portraiture was indeed fairly widespread throughout Europe during his lifetime. The men that he portrayed do not have the “senatorial dignity” attributed by Reynolds to the sitters of Titian—partly, of course, because Lotto hardly ever painted “senators”—but neither do they have the elegant austerity, the self-conscious poetic melancholy, the ostentatious devoutness, the provocative lasciviousness that characterize so many sixteenth-century portraits. At the risk of extreme oversimplification I would suggest that most of Lotto’s male sitters look worried.

Lotto’s portraits, like those by many of his contemporaries elsewhere in Italy and in Germany as well, are almost invariably admired for their psychological depth. It would be cynical to claim that this term can be applied to any portrait that does not look either positively cheerful or so stylized as to indicate only power, rank, or fashion. Nonetheless, this quality is much more difficult to define than is usually admitted—and it is particularly relevant to the case of Lotto, because there is evidence to suggest that he himself was much concerned with it.

Again and again he appears to be dissatisfied with recording, however subtly, the features, gestures, and dress of his sitters and includes in his representations of them objects that are clearly intended to be of some symbolic significance: rose petals, a lizard, a burning candle. But symbolic of what? A brief glance at the innumerable interpretations that have been made of such attributes is enough to show that historians are fundamentally divided on the issue. Some see them merely as visual puns referring to the sitter’s name (a fairly common practice at the time and one that Lotto certainly resorted to on occasion) while others try to discover in them allusions to complex details of his biography.

We can see how radical such disagreements can be if we consider the example of just one of Lotto’s most famous portraits—that of a very elegant and surely unworried woman,3 who points to a drawing that she holds in her left hand, of Lucretia stabbing herself (National Gallery, London). Is she, as has usually been claimed, a lady of noble birth who tells us that she intends to behave as virtuously as the heroine of ancient Rome who killed herself rather than endure dishonor? Or is she, as has recently been argued—by an author who may perhaps have been influenced by Berenson’s wry comment that one “cannot help feeling that the artist was not persuaded of the lady’s sincerity”4—a courtesan whose gesture and emblem are intended to be read ironically, a notion that is convincingly refuted in the exhibition catalog?

Lotto’s devotional images are certainly not liable to the same sort of controversial analyses as are his portraits, but they too are very different in character from those painted by most of his contemporaries. Instead of the calm reverence that we have come to expect in representations of the Virgin with the infant Jesus, accompanied by Saints and Angels, we are often confronted with scenes not just of instability and urgency, but almost of fear. And although the Virgin’s apprehension at the appearance of the Angel in depictions of the Annunciation is common enough in Renaissance art and is obviously justified by the nature of the event itself, Lotto’s very celebrated painting of it in the small town of Recanati in central Italy treats the subject in so surprising a manner that his contemporaries must have been even more startled by it than we are today (see illustration on page 41). Mary has obviously heard Gabriel arriving in her bedroom from the sunlit garden behind her, but it is not at all clear that she has actually seen him, for her back is turned and it is to us that she looks, in a reverential pose, it is true, but also one that suggests that she is seeking our support. It is the cat that has seen the divine messenger and flees from him in terror: a touch of humor or, as is sometimes argued, a symbol of evil being put to flight? Or both?

The notion that Lotto was not just the creator of strikingly original images but was himself a very special kind of artist was first maintained by Bernard Berenson in his monograph on Lotto that was published in 1895. Berenson has been enthusiastically acclaimed as the rediscoverer of Lotto, but this is only partially true, for Lotto had already been much discussed and praised before then, particularly by Berenson’s mentor, Giovanni Morelli. Berenson’s monograph, however, was genuinely innovative in two respects. First, it was then very unusual to publish a serious, full-scale book on an artist who was not a supreme master, such as Raphael or Titian or Velázquez. Secondly, Berenson added to what would otherwise deserve to be recorded as rather an awkward, though admittedly important, assemblage of learned articles a long concluding chapter entitled “Resulting Impression,” and in these superb pages he constructed a personality for the artist which was based (so he claimed) entirely on the nature of his pictures.

That paintings are themselves the “documents”—in theory the only documents—on the basis of which an artist’s oeuvre, if not necessarily the essence of his life, can be established was the ideal to which the connoisseurship of Morelli and Berenson aspired. But it is not, of course, an ideal that can ever be entirely fulfilled—and it certainly was not in this instance. Many written sources concerning Lotto survived from his own lifetime and were published well before 1895: above all, some vaguely appreciative, if rather condescending, comments by the friends of Titian and a number of contracts and other documents of a similar kind. Moreover, Lotto had signed and even dated a number of his pictures.

All this material was of use in providing an outline of the development of his style, and it proved in addition that he had not enjoyed a very successful career in Venice and Rome and that he had worked principally in Bergamo and in various small towns in the papal states of the Marche—evidence enough, so it was assumed, that he must have been a frustrated and forlorn wanderer over the face of Italy. This view was held in spite of the fact, much less emphasized, that until the last years of his life he received major commissions wherever he went. But although the same material also made it clear that he was a man of great piety, it was not until the publication of his will in 1887, some two or three years before Berenson began to develop an ardent interest in his art,5 that any real light was thrown on Lotto’s character.

This extraordinary document, which goes into minute details of some of the transactions in which he was involved, confirms the deep piety to which his contemporaries had alluded and shows that, at least in his later life, while he was warmly attached and grateful to a few friends he could also bear grudges and be almost obsessively touchy. To some readers (this one among them), the most poignant words in the will are likely to be those in which he bleakly sums up his own situation: “old, alone, without any stable domestic arrangements, and very anxious of mind” (“nella età, e solo, senza fidel governo et molto inquieto de la mente“).6 Then in 1893 came news of another major discovery—Lotto’s account book covering the years between 1538 and 1556. Despite the austerity of the designation, Libro di spese diverse, and despite the fact that most of the entries do little more than record details of commissions and financial transactions, Lotto’s notes also contain a great deal of sometimes oblique information about his personal outlook on life. And one item has aroused considerable excitement. In 1540 the artist painted for the cousin with whom he was then living “two little pictures with portraits of Martin Luther and his wife,” which were to be given to a friend.

  1. 1

    With only small differences the two exhibitions and their catalogs were the same in all these towns. For the sake of convenience my references are to their American versions, although I saw the Dosso exhibition in Ferrara and the Lotto exhibition in Paris.

  2. 2

    For the Lotto exhibition they are joined by David Alan Brown of the National Gallery of Art.

  3. 3

    Although Bernard Berenson described her expression as “discontented and morose.” See Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism (Putnam, 1895), p. 238.

  4. 4

    Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto (London: Phaidon, 1956), p. 99. This was a revised version of his 1895 monograph.

  5. 5

    See Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 104.

  6. 6

    Peter Humfrey has published an English translation of the will in his Lorenzo Lotto (Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 179-181. For the original text see the edition by Pietro Zampetti of Lorenzo Lotto, Il “Libro di spese diverse” con aggiunta di lettere e d’altri documenti (Venice-Rome: Fondazione Cini, Venice, 1969), pp. 301-305.

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