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“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…
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