National Gallery, London

Lorenzo Lotto: Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia, circa 1530–1533

“No fee was given, but I rely on the honesty of the gentleman, finished the painting is worth a fair price of 20 ducats.” Lorenzo Lotto entered this note about a portrait in his account book in February 1542; similar arrangements—or lack of them—are recorded in many other entries. Lotto was, at this point, in his early sixties and working in Treviso, a city between Venice and the Alps in which, almost four decades earlier, he had been remarked on as pictor celeberrimus—a very distinguished painter.

If we accept the prevailing opinion that a canvas in the current exhibition at London’s National Gallery, “Lorenzo Lotto Portraits,” corresponds to that account-book entry, then the gentleman in question was indeed in receipt of a half-length portrait of high distinction. He was a middle-aged rentier named Liberale da Pinedel, and his grave, distinctly Nordic physiognomy (pale skin, red beard) shines out from the gloom of a three-foot-high canvas—only to draw us back into that darkness by the downturned and resolutely introspective cast of his eyes. Although Liberale donned a hat and cloak designed to impress—their spotless black being de rigueur for the mid-sixteenth-century modern man—his portraitist was subversively patient: he latched onto every worry line and crinkling whisker and orchestrated them into a study of anxious aging. The piece is as quietly majestic as it is mournful and tender. On account of its format and gravitas, you might hang it between half-length portraits by Titian and Rembrandt, but to do so would bring out the extroversion—even the touch of flash—on which the greater fame of those painters depends.

It may perhaps have been because the portrait failed to flatter Liberale that Lotto received from his client, four months later, only half of the wished-for twenty ducats. More likely, it was simply because Lotto never stated a price. Repeatedly, he seems to have embarked on projects with the foolish hope that his commitment to the task at hand and the finesse of his brushwork would of their own accord suggest to the customer the price that he himself aspired to. “Classic neurotic behavior,” the Renaissance scholar Wendy Stedman Sheard has called it: that of an individual who “sets himself up for rejection or disappointment.”*

The habit characterized a career that moved sideways rather than upward. Around 1500 the young Lotto left his native Venice to set up as a purveyor of altarpieces, frescoes, and portraits, taking his practice not only to Treviso but to the towns of the Marches to the south and, for a happy extended interlude, to Bergamo in Lombardy. It was only in his mid-forties that he tried to secure a foothold in a metropolis where the art world had already for a decade been dominated by the slightly younger Titian. But Lotto abandoned Venice after eight years and returned to the provinces, where he trod water financially before eventually sinking into penury. A note written in 1546 reviewed a failed career: “Art did not earn me what I spent.” An unprofitable auction of his studio stock entrenched the verdict, and at the age of seventy-two Lotto entered a Loreto monastery as a lay brother. He died there in 1556, leaving no dependents.

What Lotto left instead—his copious, scattered half-century’s worth of panels, canvases, painted walls, and drawings—stands as testimony to a hopefulness that was at once foolish and noble. “Ambition” is not exactly the word for what drove him, although no doubt he aspired to fame in the city of his birth. Rather, the spirit with which Lotto set to work seems to have been: everything is possible, if only I devote myself sufficiently closely to the subject at hand. If the results are by turns fascinating, bemusing, and poignant, this is because such an agenda naturally prompts the question: Where does the subject start and stop?

The first focal point in the National Gallery exhibition embodies the issue. It is an altarpiece in which two male saints stand on either side of a country road gazing at a levitating, cloud-borne Virgin—a variation on the sacra conversazione format much in vogue in 1506. Every item of the iconography—the Virgin’s stiff-folded robes, the cherub-studded curls of vapor that uphold her, the evergreens and alpine peaks below, Saint Anthony’s conical beard and Saint Louis’s bishop’s crook, the very pebbles by the wayside—has been thrust forward as crisply as scrutiny permits. Everything feels full of itself, including the vibrant contrasting pigments, and everything interlocks with a delirious bristliness—that beard and the cloud’s edges are almost jammed together like matching jigsaw pieces.

What most accentuates the tension is the Virgin’s head. Every painter in the Veneto would have known the lovely prototypes devised by Giovanni Bellini: the departure from them is jarring. For Lotto’s Mary—and this is why an altarpiece features in a show devoted to portraiture—bears the facial features of Caterina Cornaro, a prim and pious Venetian patrician who was by then in her fifties. Cornaro had formerly acted as a stooge monarch for the Venetian Republic in its satellite kingdom of Cyprus, but when it was found expedient to remove her from that position she was compensated with a token court in the hill town of Asolo. Her patronage had already been hailed when the humanist Pietro Bembo composed a suite of idealistic dialogues set at her country court entitled Gli Asolani, and the young painter who visited her in 1506 adapted himself to the fashion for literary cleverness. He went in for multiple significations: let the queen of the hill town be the queen of heaven, let the “cypress” behind her be “Cyprus.” The subject—this grand old dame—might in all senses be full of herself, but this did not preclude her being something else as well.


With whom Lotto trained is uncertain, but he came of age at a time when it seemed as if you could take painting anywhere. The innovations of Bellini and Giorgione, of Raphael and Dürer—to name only those that this particular Venetian would certainly have known—suggested that painters aspiring to descriptive precision, freeform fantasy, or optical harmony could interfuse all those aims so as to arouse fresh and marvelous flavors in the mind of the viewer. Lotto, it seems, was by temperament a reader—books appear in many of the portraits on view, sometimes with the text laid on the paint by actual pen and ink—and in another project of the early 1500s he chose a tactic Italian writers often adopted, setting prose and poetry in apposition.

Twin panels are devoted to his patron Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi of Treviso. One renders the external appearance of a querulous political operator with all the hard-edged exactitude that quattrocento painting had perfected. Its partner by contrast visualizes the inner bishop through a wild, floaty allegorical landscape featuring a satyr, storm clouds, a shipwreck, a shattered yet resurgent tree trunk, and diligent putti illumined by distant radiance. No doubt Bernardo, at the age of thirty-seven, would have explained to Lotto that his life to date had by no means been smooth sailing.

No doubt the question of what it meant to represent an individual in the Italy of 1505 also remained open. (If anything, the answer here most resembles that of Yoruba portraiture, in which one sort of sculpture, a naturalistic ori ode, is accompanied by a second, a spiritualistic ori inu.) There were plenty of portraitists prepared to treat individuals as dynastic entities, but politics were peripheral to Lotto. He portrayed people wondering about their souls and their life stories rather than about their social status. Bergamo, a small city abounding in cloth merchants though not in painters, offered an open field for his curiosity after he made it his base in 1513. He became close to an up-and-coming family, the Cassotti, and the features of one of their children, Apollonia, in turn became those of the Virgin Mary in a lushly colorful sacra conversazione of 1524, even while the Christ Child on her lap—his head fizzing with three tiny flares of holiness—and the glamorously blond Saint Catherine who plays with him were entirely products of Lotto’s fantasy. In another canvas Apollonia’s husband swears fealty to her with recourse to a seemingly symbolic squirrel and an inscribed Latin motto. The portraiture-in-landscape format here was Lotto’s innovation, adopted not so much to depict two separate individuals as a unitary relationship.

At the same time, both this and Lotto’s other treatment of Apollonia teeter on the edge of burlesque, for each insinuates that the young woman was irredeemably dim-witted. The funniest painting in the show—in fact, the nearest that Lotto’s portraiture approaches the texture of a novel—was commissioned by Apollonia’s father to celebrate her brother’s acquisition of a higher-class bride. Twenty-one-year-old Marsilio Cassotti was likewise an ingenu in Lotto’s interpretation, a jaunty, cocksure oaf who was binding himself, as he placed the ring on the posh Faustina’s finger, to an altogether steelier will. But to guarantee that Marsilio would stick to the straight and narrow and cause no scandal, Lotto—no doubt heeding Cassotti senior’s anxieties—inserted behind the happy couple a cherub with a yoke, who leers mischievously as he whispers a sly reminder in the ear of the groom.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Lorenzo Lotto: Messer Marsilio Cassotti and His Wife Faustina, 1523

To exceed his brief, to read insistently and even outrageously between the lines, was Lotto’s instinctive bent. Another epithalamion—now in the Metropolitan Museum—seems to lend a nude Venus the features of the bride, while her son, Cupid, exultantly pisses, through a wreath she lifts up, all over her thighs. An altarpiece for the Marches town of Recanati jettisoned the customary Gabriel-faces-Mary profile-to-profile formula for annunciations to introduce the sixteenth-century equivalent of a still from an action movie, with the Virgin and angel facing forward and a Superman-like God Almighty diving through a rear window while a terrified cat runs off. Elsewhere, in a Bergamo church, the deity is iconographically reinvented as a faceless cloud with hands.


Provincial life—compact, comprehensible, potentially comic—has suited many a large imagination, and at the same time it suggests a challenge ducked. At forty-five Lotto moved to Venice—in effect to take on Titian. For that intention was surely behind two of the exhibition’s boldest canvases, one portraying an auburn-haired Venetian lady who holds up to us a drawing of the classical heroine Lucretia (see illustration on page 8) and the other the art collector Andrea Odoni standing amid antique marbles. By the late 1520s Titian had created a certain way for his clients to appreciate themselves. His portraiture succeeded in implying that their common humanity was capacious, a lofty hall opening up behind all their identities that resounded with fine harmonies.

Lotto subscribed to an alternative expansiveness. There were as many different ways to be human as there were individuals, and in each case, what a person consisted of might be partly withheld from our sight. For all that his Venetian redhead flaunts her gorgeous striped velvet dress and an expanse of gleaming chest, her confrontational demeanor gives her an agency never to be encountered in Titian’s portraiture. What exactly she is defying we don’t know: all we can know is that she refuses our definitions.

Odoni, a civil service careerist whose history was “not devoid of scandals,” as the exhibition catalog coyly puts it, was the theme of another broad-format, object-strewn study of personhood. With tastes that differed from those of his portraitist—Lotto seems chiefly to have splurged on Turkish carpets, and his enthusiasm for depicting them runs away with certain canvases—this haughty, hefty bigshot surrounded himself with cold white relics of sensuous classical paganism. Yet look closer, and we find that he clutches to his bosom a discreet golden crucifix, to deliberately contradictory effect. Suggesting that we can’t wholly know Odoni, Lotto also allowed that he was not much to be liked. Those with hands turned to their crafts, or with their hearts turned to heaven—a goldsmith, for instance, or an aged Dalmatian bishop—he could admire, but those who gave themselves airs he suspected. Might he have counted Titian among the latter? Famously, monarchs adored this master whose brushwork was itself imperiously free.

Lotto had other aims. Always in command of a keen, incisive line and a relish for his pigments, whether applied opaquely or in glazes, he could shuttle between the two and arrive at a subtly delightful workmanship: from the outset, he recognized that a punctilious rendering and a soft fluidity each had their place. But painterly swagger meant no more to him than Michelangelesque ideals of the human form, and consistently his intent was to characterize and to describe.

How pedestrian! A letter to Lotto from Titian’s great literary ally Pietro Aretino indicates the pecking order that obtained in Venice. “O Lotto, good as goodness itself and as virtuous as virtue,” Aretino begins, before passing on greetings from Titian, who was currently painting at the court of Charles V in Augsburg. Titian’s pleasure at hearing his canvases so praised by the emperor would only be redoubled, Aretino goes on to tell his correspondent, were Lotto also present beside him to lend them his discriminating eye. For he, Lotto, was such a decent fellow: “There is no envy in your breast, but rather you rejoice to see in masters of design certain matters with which you yourself seem unacquainted, when it comes to the brush.” Naturally, however, the letter suavely concedes, “to be excelled in the profession of painting in no way comes near to seeing yourself unequalled in the observance of religion.”

The irreligious Aretino, it should be noted, smirked his way through these lines sometime after Lotto had quit Venice. His output there had begun to incline to the tart: most memorably in a further large, broad canvas dense with blacks and greens and blues, in which a lean and sallow youth bleakly faces up to us, raising his sights from a ledger leaned on a tabletop in disarray. Its scrumpled shawl and strewn petals, and most of all its lizard perched in attendance on the man who is its analogue: all parts cohere into a panorama of melancholy. Here Lotto went beyond recording an identity to invent a form for a state of soul.

One might ask where the limits of that mental predicament lay. By the early 1530s, the date of this canvas, the carefree can-do ethos of the Italy Lotto had known in his youth was long past. Venice had adeptly survived a sequence of invasions that brought external armies permanently into the peninsula, but the republic was not immune to the Europe-wide religious antagonisms that first opened up in 1517. Lotto often chose to associate with the Dominicans, the harder-edged, more austere face of the Catholicism of his era; but this did not preclude him from transcribing for a Venetian client secondhand images of Martin Luther and his wife. Altogether committed to the specific and to qualities of soul, he had nothing about him of the ideologue.

Nonetheless, whether promoted by the piety of the Habsburg emperor or that of the Protestant Reformers, the tide of black fabric was advancing, and Lotto’s later portraiture fell in with the new seriousness. As he had done before in Bergamo, the hard-up itinerant artist paid off a landlord with a canvas, but his former blithe eccentricity no longer came so readily: the family portrait that Giovanni dalla Volta received in 1547 feels sullen at heart, for all his little son’s leaping and his wife’s crimson silks. The same period, however, saw Lotto achieving several somber successes such as the Liberale canvas. In a sense their reduced, accessory-light approach to sitters took directions from Titian, the portraitist who had devised the most handsome rhetoric for the incoming era of polarized power blocs. But there is no mistaking the contrast in spirit to which Aretino backhandedly alluded. Lotto’s steady and earnest attentiveness to the other person shows through only the more clearly once he eschews chromatic pizzazz for earth colors and for thoughts of heaven.

As its catalog reveals, when the London exhibition traveled from the Prado, it lost much—including some seemingly fascinating drawings—that might have rounded off the impression it gives of Lotto’s artistic personality. What the curation most distinctly offers is an emphasis on Lotto as a painter fond of depicting manufactured products and thus as a participant in sixteenth-century material culture. His portraiture is certainly well equipped to comply with this current trend in art studies, inspired as it is by a belief that individuality does not reside in faces and hands alone but extends into the possessions with which the subjects surround themselves, or into objects that symbolize their inner dynamics. Thus bookbindings, jewelry, clothing, and whatever else the canvases describe have been hunted down and put on display in vitrines beside those canvases. You can admire the research and savor some of these piquant reunions, while feeling that to exhibit a grand Anatolian rug or a marble head of Hadrian next to Lotto’s renderings of them in oil is to risk a cacophony. Two strong and dissonant aesthetic intentions shout each other down, and neither gets duly heard.

Few subscribe to the notion of art’s upward progress these days, and perhaps art studies merit a similar skepticism. The catalog includes persuasive essays by its editors, Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo and Miguel Falomir, and by Ana González Mozo, along with sociological scholarship and prefaces that mull over the seemingly perennial task of alerting the public to a great but underrecognized Renaissance original.

Nothing written today, however, supersedes the monograph that initiated that process: Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism, published by the young Bernard Berenson in 1895. Berenson’s acutely personal advocacy—which, as he disarmingly avowed, connected a lonely sixteenth-century sensibility to the anxieties of his own neurasthenic fin-de-siècle—carries hardly less urgency in 2018. He detected in Lotto an unprecedented sensitivity “to the varying states of the human soul” at a juncture when rival orthodoxies were rapidly entrenching themselves, and cherished in his work an imagination that would forever ask “what effect a given situation must have on a given character” and a refusal “to treat any detail, even the smallest, as a matter of indifference or convention.” Here, Berenson concluded, was “a psychological painter in an age which ended by esteeming little but force and display.”