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.

Although a full transcript of the account book was not published until 1895—by which time Berenson’s monograph had already been printed7—extracts from it had appeared a year earlier.8 Berenson had certainly seen these, for he refers to the document somewhat dismissively and without giving any precise reference, and he specifically mentions the Luther portraits. There seems to me little doubt that, although his general views on Lotto had already been formed well before he had the chance to study the Libro di spese—as he was, of course, able to do before the publication of later editions of his monograph—he must, at the very least, have been gratified to discover that its contents did not conflict with his own interpretation of the artist, even though it would surely take a very well disposed reader to endorse his claim that the “account book confirms the idea of his character which we deduce from his painting.”9

It must in fact be acknowledged that the Lotto so eloquently admired by Berenson was not really the meticulous, almost pedantic, note taker, so troubled and so lonely, who emerges from the Libro di Spese and, still more, from the will. Berenson’s Lotto was, above all, an artist of the most acute psychological insight, comparable to Tolstoy and Henry James, and capable—as no painter before or since—of bringing out “on the face of his sitter so much of his inner life.”10 This claim is made again and again, but—as far as I am aware—only once does Berenson ever single out any specific sitter in order to propose what the nature of his inner life might be. What he presumably means, as do most of us when we use the term, is that Lotto’s sitters are so memorable precisely because they suggest that they are concealing, rather than revealing, those concerns that mean most to them.

Indeed, for Berenson the mere possession of psychological insight, however we choose to recognize it, was perhaps most significant for the evidence it offered of a sensitivity that isolated Lotto from “an age which ended by esteeming little but force and display.” Moreover, that sensitivity gave a special cast to Lotto’s religious beliefs—beliefs that led him to yearn for immediate communion with God rather than to endorse the attitude so prevalent among his contemporaries, who would, before long, be ready to accept abject submission to the decrees of the Council of Trent and the double tyranny of Spain and the Papacy. Berenson’s Lotto in fact was a man of the same cast of mind as those reformers who hoped, in vain, that they would be able to make religion personal once more without becoming Protestant.

How far such an interpretation could justifiably be drawn from the pictures alone, as Berenson claimed, and how far it depended, at least in part, on a necessarily selective reading of the documents that had recently become available to him is impossible to determine.11 The same question could be asked, with equally unsatisfactory results, of the many others that have been offered since. Indeed, many (perhaps most) writers might now claim that the idea of trying to make use of either kind of evidence in order to elucidate the nature of an artist’s achievement is as misconceived as it is irrelevant. But there must surely have been some visitors to the exhibition who felt that a response to Lotto’s wonderfully moving paintings would have been impoverished without making an attempt, however doomed to failure, to understand the man who had created them.


Questions of this kind do not, I think, arise when we contemplate the very different art and life of Dosso Dossi, although our lack of curiosity is certainly not owing to any dearth of quality in his oeuvre or to any impression that he too is not a highly original artist. It can be claimed that he painted at least two of the most marvelous pictures of the entire Italian Renaissance, of which one (the Circe; see illustration on page 42) is in the exhibition now in New York.12 At his radiant best Dosso is inspired by other worlds than ours (he is known to have painted only a very few portraits, none of which has so far been identified with certainty)—the worlds of mythology, legend, magic, poetry, and allegory—and it is to one or another of these worlds that even most of his religious pictures seem to belong: the Virgin in the Hampton Court Nativity, for instance, is strikingly similar to a pagan enchantress.

Dosso spent almost his entire working life in Ferrara, which was ruled by the Este family, a dynasty whose artistic patronage was among the most brilliant of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ferrara was also the city where Dosso’s near contemporary Ludovico Ariosto, who was rapidly becoming the most celebrated poet of the age, wrote Orlando Furioso, his masterpiece, which was to be read throughout Europe. No other single fact has been more influential in establishing Dosso’s reputation and in conditioning approaches to the nature of his art. In 1532, a year before he died, Ariosto added a stanza to earlier editions of the poem in which he listed the most admired Italian painters, both deceased and living. He made no attempt to characterize their works, nor was his choice in any way a surprising one—Leonardo da Vinci, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, and Titian—except for the fact that he included Dosso Dossi (and his much less distinguished brother Battista) in this illustrious company. Vasari, who felt almost nothing but scorn for Dosso, commented dryly:

I must confess that I think that people who are acclaimed by such great men are very fortunate, because the excellence of their literary achievement compels infinite numbers of men and women to believe such praise even when it is not fully deserved…. Ariosto’s pen has given greater fame to Dosso than all the brushes and pigments that he got through in his entire life.

Whatever one thinks of Dosso’s merits or (lack of them), the coupling of his name with that of Ariosto has been echoed ever since, and has, again and again, led critics to look for, and find, analogies between their works. Berenson, for instance, who began his appraisal of the artist in a tone almost as dismissive as that of Vasari, soon found himself affirming that “as a romantic Illustrator he has few rivals. He painted with the same ease, the same richness of tone, the same glamour, and the same drollery as his friend Ariosto wrote.” Comparisons between the painter and the poet abound in the catalog of the exhibit currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, despite the fact that, as is also noted in the catalog, Dosso very rarely, if indeed ever, painted scenes or figures that were actually derived from the vividly descriptive episodes in Ariosto’s narrative poem.13

Moreover Ariosto’s apparent praise of Dosso may well have been much less significant than was thought by Vasari and others. It was quite common in such literature to eulogize artists and other prominent figures from the writer’s own town alongside others whose fame was far more widespread, and in recording the names of the Dossi brothers next to those of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian, Ariosto may well have been inspired more by local patriotism and an urge to flatter their patrons, and his own, than by a genuine belief that their achievements were on the same level. In any case, since far fewer people now read Ariosto than was once the case, visitors to the exhibition are unlikely to pay much attention to supposed similarities between the work of Dosso and his “friend”—a friendship, it has to be said, that does not seem to have been mentioned in the sources. The painter now has to stand on his own and, at his best, he does so triumphantly.

The most bewitching features of many of his most poetical pictures, and of details of pictures, are ones that reappear at a number of different stages in his career and would once have been described as Giorgionesque, though that label is now used more cautiously: small-scale figures, often in fanciful and richly colored costumes, communing or traveling in lush romantic landscapes, while the leaves of the towering trees behind them flicker in the sunlight and, in the distance, fairy-like castles are reflected in the blue water of the sea or rivers. For American and English visitors it may well be Keats rather than Ariosto who, however anachronistically, springs most readily to mind. And yet, somewhat surprisingly, it is Giorgione who, so we are told, seems to have inspired also his earliest, and rather repellent, works such as the Nymph and Satyr and Buffoon (see illustration on page 44), which, legitimately but regrettably, will be the first pictures to be seen by those entering the exhibition.14

In fact, for me one of the most surprising aspects of the exhibition was the discovery of not just how varied the artist could be but how uneven: again and again, he moved, with apparent insouciance, between painting pictures of the most exquisite refinement (the Hermitage Sibyl, for instance) and producing others of crude, popular humor. Working throughout most of his very unadventurous life for the same court (though admittedly for different members of it), he produced an oeuvre utterly lacking that consistency of mood that seems so characteristic of Lotto as he journeyed between Venice, Bergamo, and the small towns of the Marche, each with their very distinctive patrons.

Like all other artists, Lotto could be struck by the achievements of his great predecessors and contemporaries very different in character from his own; but although such alien influences can be detected in pictures by him, in every case they have been absorbed so smoothly into his personal style as to appear no more than a natural extension of it. When, however, Dosso saw Michelangelo’s Ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel during the course of an undated, indeed unrecorded, visit to Rome, they seem to have inspired in him creative ambitions of a kind that were quite new to him—the elegant rapture of Apollo’s half-nude body as he listens in ecstasy to the music he plays on his lira da braccio (although the theme itself was taken from Raphael’s Parnassus in the Vatican)—as well as those grandiloquent but rather clumsy parodies which are to be seen in the exhibition, where they are described, for want of any more persuasive title, as Learned Men of Classical Antiquity.

Indeed, like many court artists of the sixteenth century Dosso was often required to paint subjects which we today find difficult to interpret and which even in his own day may have been designed to puzzle visitors to the various Este palaces that he was called upon to decorate. Both in the exhibition catalog and in Dosso’s Fate, the (partial) record of a two-part international conference imaginatively organized before the opening of the exhibition so as to enable its conclusions to be made of use in the catalog, many learned, imaginative, and penetrating attempts are made to unravel these mysteries. But almost none of them solves in a wholly convincing manner the problem that it sets out to explore, and we remain uncertain whether this is because the correct solution has yet to be found or whether Dosso deliberately treated abstruse subject matter in an arbitrary spirit. Fortunately many of these paintings, such as the Allegory with Pan in the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Mythological Allegory (see illustration on page 44) in the Villa Borghese in Rome, are, like similarly mysterious pictures by Giorgione, so intrinsically poetical that we are not troubled by our failure to be certain of what it is that is depicted.

Such is not the case, however, with one of the last pictures in the exhibition, entitled Allegory of Hercules or Witchcraft. An ugly, withered, half- naked old man, a garland of roses round his head, is seated at the head of a table, on the further side of which sit and stand two women with their breasts exposed, a smirking youth holding up a distaff, and various other grinning figures, some of them clearly people intended to be recognized. The first reference to this crude and clumsy picture dates from 1665 and describes it as “a painting with portraits of the duke of Ferrara’s buffoons”—a title which, at the very least, strikes me as more plausible than any that have been proposed since. In the present catalog Mauro Lucco assigns the picture to a long tradition of the mock heroic, arguing not only that it portrays the young, virile, and good-looking Duke Ercole as a decrepit and impotent Hercules but that it can therefore only have been commissioned by the Duke himself in order to mock “those who think to mock him.”

Although I am not able to offer any alternative theory I must confess that I am wholly unconvinced by this one. It does, however, bring us face to face with the infinitely depressing topic of Dosso’s sense of humor—or supposed sense of humor. Lucco considers this to be a central feature of the artist’s achievement and discovers it in the most improbable places. Thus when Dosso signs with a punning letter D encircling a bone (osso) a profoundly moving picture of Saint Jerome in a landscape holding up a crucifix, we are told that this has been done to prevent the “mystic agitation suggested by the saint’s pose from being taken too seriously.” But having myself made unsubstantiated claims about the anxiety and tension to be found in the art of Lotto, I realize that I am not well placed to be dismissive of views of a similar nature made by other scholars about other artists. After all, Dosso’s account book may turn up one day and prove to be full of heavy-handed wisecracks.

This has not happened yet, but one document has been discovered which has caused much confusion and controversy among art historians. This is worth mentioning here because its general implications extend further than the particular issue raised by it. Partly because Dosso worked very largely in Ferrara for Ferrarese patrons, letters and even contracts are sparse. The chronology of his oeuvre has therefore had to be worked out very largely on the basis of stylistic analyses of the pictures that can plausibly be attributed to him without the help of written documents. But until three years ago broad agreement had been reached about his early development—always the hardest to assess in the case of any artist. Much depended on the dating of the largest picture—as distinct from fresco—in which Dosso was ever involved, a monumental, and extremely impressive, polyptych of the Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints with additional saints in the side panels.15 This had been commissioned by Antonio Costabili, one of the most prominent citizens in Ferrara, and painted as an altarpiece for the church of Sant’Andrea in the city. In 1568 Vasari attributed the picture to Dosso’s elder contemporary Benvenuto Garofalo, but a hundred years later a better-informed writer said that it had been begun by Dosso and completed by Garofalo and a third artist.

In the 1930s the great art historian Roberto Longhi tried to distinguish between the parts painted by Dosso and by Garofalo, and on the whole his views were accepted. Opinions about the dating, based on stylistic consid-erations, ranged between the early Twenties and Thirties of the sixteenth century, and this left Dosso (born in the mid-1480s) plenty of time to have painted a significant number of pictures before then. Nor did this situation change when, quite recently, it was discovered that Costabili had died in 1527, by which year the altarpiece had certainly been completed and installed. But then in 1995 an archivist turned up a document that seemed to throw into doubt every hypothesis that had so far been suggested about Dosso’s early work: payments made by Costabili proved beyond a doubt that as early as the second half of 1513 Dosso and Garofalo were both engaged on painting the altarpiece. This would have made it impossible for Dosso to have painted the group of early pictures attributed to him by Longhi and accepted by most art historians as his.

It would not be possible to discuss here the full implications of this discovery and the problems they have raised. Perhaps the most surprising (but possibly legitimate) response has come from the organizers of the current exhibition, who have accepted without a qualm not only all the unavoidable but even some of the avoidable conclusions to be drawn from the document. There may well be nothing in the style of the polyptych “that argues against accepting the evidence of the documents at face value” (although one would be interested to hear the reactions of Morelli and Berenson to this show of equanimity). But is it really necessary to argue also that “the fact that both painters were employed on the project throughout the second half of 1513, and also that both are known to have been engaged on other commissions in 1514, makes it likely that the ensemble was complete or nearly complete by the beginning of that year”? Many historians, aware of the endless delays that so often ensued during the Renaissance, not least in Ferrara, between the beginning of work on a major picture and its completion, may well have their doubts about this. These doubts could be of real significance, for if the altarpiece was in fact completed only some years after the new document records it as having been begun, it would not (to take only one instance of many more that could be suggested) be necessary to think of it as having been one of the most innovative works of its time.

Such issues may seem trivial and pedantic to most museum visitors, but they are surely essential for a true understanding of the paintings that we look at in museums: it is unlikely that literary controversies, centering around the development of a great writer, would be liable to quite such casual dismissal as are those involving the fine arts. Be that as it may, it was partly to try to resolve such problems, and many others, that a small, semi-independent Dosso exhibition was held in Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara, just one flight of stairs up from the main one, with which its relations were rather ambiguous, to say the least. It consisted only of the Costabili polyptych and material related to it, and while it will not be traveling to the United States, its fully illustrated and well-documented catalog has just been published, thanks to support from the Getty Grant Program.16 This is well worth reading not only by anyone fascinated by Ferrarese art and the superb achievement of Dosso Dossi but also by anyone interested in the infinitely intriguing problem of the different kinds of evidence to be drawn from written and painted “documents.”

This Issue

February 18, 1999