Roderick Conway-Morris

Power of invention

Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits alone should have secured him a place in history as a major Renaissance painter.

Power of invention
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Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits alone should have secured him a place in history as a major Renaissance painter.

Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits alone should have secured him a place in history as a major Renaissance painter. Yet, ironically, while his works continued to be admired, his name was all but forgotten.

This paradoxical state of affairs came about because Lotto suffered from a steady series of posthumous misattributions, his works being assigned to the most bafflingly diverse range of other artists from Giorgione, Pordenone, Titian, Tintoretto, Dosso Dossi and Veronese to Perugino, Leonardo, Andrea del Sarto, Holbein, even Van Dyck, and an obscure 17th-century German Baroque artist Johann Carl Loth, known in Italy as Carlotto.

Bernard Berenson initiated the revival of Lotto’s name and reputation with his monograph on the artist of 1895. But widespread appreciation has come about thanks to exhibitions in Italy, France, England and the US. Unprecedented in its scope is the current splendid show, curated by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa, displaying Lotto’s works in all their richness and variety and confirming his rightful position in the artistic pantheon.

The 54 works here — of religious, classical and allegorical subjects, and portraiture — include 17 paintings conserved and restored especially for the exhibition, among them nearly a dozen altarpieces. The first room has three of these from the Veneto and the Marche — from near Treviso, Asolo and Recanati — painted when Lotto was still in his mid-twenties. Although drawing on the example of his great artistic forerunners and contemporaries in Venice (he was born in the city around 1480), these early works demonstrate that he was already a master who had established a style of his own.

The Recanati high altar was painted for the church of San Domenico and he received commissions from this order throughout the rest of his career. It was a commission for an altarpiece in the Dominican church of San Stefano that took Lotto to Bergamo in Lombardy in 1513. He remained there until 1525, painting several other altarpieces and frescoes, while doing numerous private commissions and designs for 33 intarsia panels for the choir of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. So ubiquitous did Lotto’s works become in Bergamo that the legend arose that he had been born in the city.

Lotto’s Sacred Conversations brought a new immediacy to the genre. In one, from the church of San Bernadino in Bergamo, of 1521, for example, the Madonna leans forward to address the titular saint, and the mop-headed young angel at the foot of her throne turns away from his book and quill pen to look out at us, as though he has just at that moment become aware of our gaze.

This engaging sense of drama, characteristic of so much of Lotto’s oeuvre, reaches new heights in two Annunciations, from Jesi and Recanati. In the former a visibly reeling Virgin raises her hands and spreads her arms in consternation, and in the latter, Gabriel’s sudden appearance in the Virgin’s bedroom sends a startled cat scuttling for cover.

The artist’s portraits — nearly half of the 40 that survive are on show here — were both innovative and influential. He definitively dropped the convention of a parapet in the foreground of the picture, bringing his sitters in more direct contact with the viewer. Even the early portraits of the Bishop of Treviso Bernardo de’ Rossi and his widowed sister Giovanna, painted before and at the time of his first commissions for altarpieces, give an extraordinary sense of their presence.

Lotto introduced a wide variety of portrait poses and settings, and the horizontal format. He made new and subtle uses of objects to suggest aspects of his subjects’ personalities. And his ‘Triple Portrait of a Jeweller’, showing the same person from three different angles, was the first of its kind.

During the last 20 or so years of his life he moved frequently between Venice, Treviso and the Marche. His skills were undiminished but he seemed to find it increasingly difficult to make a living. For some brilliant portraits executed in Treviso between 1542 and 1545 he received trifling sums, between 10 and 15 ducats a piece. For other works he even accepted payments in kind: oil, wine and hams.

He spent the last two years of his life as the inmate of a religious hostel in Loreto. In the spring of 1556, the year of his death, he was still ordering fresh colours and brushes from Venice, and his last legacy, an unfinished ‘Presentation of Christ in the Temple’, shows his powers of invention and expression still vigorous even as his physical strength deserted him.