Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits — nervous, intense and enigmatic — are among the most memorable to be painted in 16th-century Italy, but his fellow Venetians didn’t see it that way. In a letter to Lotto of 1548, the poet and satirist Pietro Aretino wrote that he was ‘outclassed in the profession of painting’ by Titian.
Now, though, with an exhibition of his portraits in store at the National Gallery next year, it looks as though Lotto’s time may finally have come.
On a bright day this autumn my wife and I went on the trail of this most fascinating and idiosyncratic of Renaissance artists. Our goal was Cingoli, in the foothills of the Apennines, which likes to refer to itself as the ‘balcony of the Marche’ because of the view over the plain and extending — allegedly, on a fine day — right across the Adriatic to Croatia. Better still, if you love art, the town is home to a great painting: Lotto’s ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ (1539).
The most extraordinary feature is not the Madonna and Child on their throne, but what towers above them: a huge rose bush, its blooms beautifully represented, grows around a wooden frame bearing 15 small round pictures within the larger picture. These represent the 15 Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary — that is, the events in the lives of Christ and Mary on which the devout meditate while saying the rosary.
Most prominent among the Joyful Mysteries is the Nativity, placed centrally just above Mary’s head. This is not the only reason why there is a vaguely, if unhistorically, Christmassy feeling to the whole ensemble. Not many works of art have as their largest motif an enormous, decorated tree. There are presents, too.
Much of the sacred action in this picture centres on the offering of gifts. The Madonna is in the act of handing the rosary to St Dominic, who kneels on the left (she was believed to have given him the first such string of beads — still frequently to be seen in the Marche — while he lay unconscious from self-mortification in 1208).
Meanwhile, on the right-hand side St Exuperantius — a 5th-century bishop venerated in the neighbourhood — holds up the town of Cingoli to the Madonna in the form of a neat, circular model looking very much like an elaborately embellished cake. Below, adding to the mood of celebration, a baby angel launches a plume of rose petals in the manner of the winner of a motor race spraying champagne; another putto points firmly to the painter’s signature.
Though Lotto (c.1480–1556/7) had every reason to be proud, his native Venice remained unimpressed. He was sufficiently well known to qualify for a brief mention in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but in worldly terms he was not a huge success. A few years after he completed ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ he described himself as ‘old, alone, without any stable domestic arrangements and very anxious of mind’.
You can often feel the unease in his pictures. The morning before we went to Cingoli we’d spent a long time looking at the altarpiece Lotto painted for the Dominicans in Recanati in 1506–8, 30 years before the ‘Madonna of the Rosary’. It’s beautiful, but not serene in the manner of Bellini. The Madonna’s face is veiled in melancholy half-shadow, the saints around her stir restlessly.
In works such as this, Lotto seems not so much a Renaissance artist — confident and full-blooded — as a forerunner of reformed Catholicism. He had something in common with the other, Protestant reformers thriving north of the Alps. Lotto didn’t follow authority, he worked things out for himself. He was also, it seems, outstandingly pious. Pietro Aretino begins his 1548 letter with the greeting ‘O Lotto, good as goodness and virtuous as virtue itself’, before going on to observe that while he might have been outshone as a painter, that was not the case when it came to ‘his attention to religion’.
On occasion Lotto would rethink religious subjects with results that were boldly original and sometimes verged on the surreal. In a little oratory near Bergamo, he covered a wall with a fresco on the theme of ‘Christ the Vine’, in which the Saviour’s fingers sprout into long tendrils stretching and twirling aloft. In the ‘Madonna of the Rosary’, the Glorious Mystery of the Ascension is like a cartoon in which only Christ’s feet can be seen, shooting upwards out of the frame. It’s not hard to see why Lotto’s art was too idiosyncratic for sophisticated Venetian tastes.
As a result, he had to find work where he could — and to advertise (hence that prominent signature). Lotto led a wandering life, scattering masterpieces around the byways of northern and central Italy — many of them in sleepy cities in the Marche, where he spent more than a decade working, on and off. Here his client was not a duke, bishop, banker or pope, but the local Confraternity of the Rosary who — apparently with a bit of help from the council — paid for this altarpiece.
Cingoli has the feeling of a mountain settlement. Even on a warmish day in early October there was a hint of wood smoke in the air. It is not the kind of place where you would normally expect to find a stellar picture. To see Lotto, you need to travel —although even if you make the journey, there is no guarantee you will succeed in seeing the picture.
We had set off for Cingoli without much hope. The day before, we had visited a similar hill town, Monte San Giusto, only to find the church that houses Lotto’s great Crucifixion shored up with scaffolding and the door firmly closed. These areas were close to the epicentre of last year’s disastrous earthquake and many ancient buildings have developed alarming cracks. But at Cingoli we were in luck. We met a helpful man with the key to the room in the town hall where the painting has been moved for safety. He ushered us in and there it was — nearly 13 feet high, magnificently executed, marvellously preserved. In the circumstances, it seemed almost miraculous.
Lorenzo Lotto Portraits is at the National Gallery from 5 November 2018 to 10 February 2019.