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Art review: Lorenzo Lotto Portraits at the National Gallery

14 December 2018

Lorenzo Lotto was an overlooked artist, says Nicholas Cranfield

© Ufficio Diocesano per l’Arte Sacra e i Beni Culturali, Diocesi di Treviso

The Virgin in Glory with Sts Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse, 1506, by Lorenzo Lotto

The Virgin in Glory with Sts Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse, 1506, by Lorenzo Lotto

THE latest joint exhibition that the National Gallery has researched, developed, and staged with the Prado offers an overview of Lorenzo Lotto as a portraitist. In the 2011 Lotto retrospective in Rome, I noted to myself that, seen beside his other works, it is, perhaps, the portraits that best discover the artist who was all but overlooked by his contemporaries.

Seeing this show, at the Prado and now in London, convinces me that Lotto, who was an accomplished painter from the Veneto who died at Loreto (some time between September 1556 and July 1557), where he had sought, not always successfully, to make a name for himself as a religious artist, comes to the fore as an observer of human nature.

Several major religious commissions are included, as Lotto often used real subjects for models. In the first room hangs an altarpiece from Asolo of the Virgin in Glory, ascending between Sts Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse. But the Virgin Immaculate seems to be older than would be usually pictured.

This may be a portrait of Queen Caterina Cornaro of Jerusalem and Cyprus, who was pensioned off to Asolo by the Venetians, where she died in 1510. Beneath her is a hilltop view of the city of her exile in the Veneto, with a tell-tale cypress tree perhaps offering a pun on her lost kingdom.

Lotto’s surprised-looking 60-year old landlord in Bergamo, Nicolò Bonghi, stumbles on to the scene of an otherwise conventional The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine. The ruinous canvas has lost much of the upper field that might once have included a cityscape of Bergamo itself.

© Patriarcato di Venezia, Ufficio Beni Culturali/Photo © Cameraphoto/Scala, FlorenceThe Alms of Saint Antoninus of Florence, 1542, by Lorenzo Lotto

The last room is dominated by an altarpiece, St Antoninus Distributing Alms (1542). As a 16-year-old, Antonio Pierozi (1389-1459) had entered the Dominican house at Fiesole outside Florence. He rose to become the prior of the community and, in 1442, founded a confraternity in Florence to assist the deserving poor, and was known for his own generosity offering relief to the victims of plague and the earthquake. He was canonised in 1523, and the Dominicans in Venice were not slow to celebrate one of their number. It may be that Lotto even portrays himself among the supplicants, many of whom he paid to sit for the painting.

The germ of the idea behind the current show arose in 2008 from another collaborative exhibition between both institutions (“Renaissance Faces”) that had featured three representative paintings by Lotto. Not for the first time, however, in such co-operative ventures, London has come off somewhat second best.

As with Jan Gossaert (Arts, 15 April 2011), Goya’s portraits (Arts, 20 November 2015), and, more recently, Thomas Cole’s visons of Eden, the more comprehensive exhibition has been staged by the partner institution elsewhere. Those able to get to Iberia earlier this summer saw a more rounded display.

Forty-six works of art were shown in Spain alongside Lotto’s hand-written will (25 March 1531), in which he specified that he be buried simply vested in a Dominican habit, a vital clue to his spirituality. Eleven paintings have not made it to London, including the portrait of a man from New Orleans which had not been seen in any retrospective of the artist’s work since 1953, and the devotional Berlin picture of Elisabetta Rota Zabelli Contemplating Christ’s Leave-taking of His Mother (1521).

Crucially, only one of the half-dozen drawings by Lotto, or attributed to him, has made it over the Channel, probably for very good reasons of conservation. But this loss is particularly acute, as Lotto’s sketches have rarely been included in monographic exhibitions of his work; so their absence here is doubly regrettable. What remains looks good in four of the spacious ground-floor galleries.

© Fondazione Accademia Carrara, BergamoPortrait of a Young Man, c.1500, by Lorenzo Lotto

As an artist, Lotto re-entered public consciousness with the ground-breaking 1953 exhibition that Pietro Zanetti staged in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. Bernard Berenson, whose seminal study of the artist had first appeared in 1895, revised it in 1956. He identified nearly 100 portraits, and argued that Lotto was the first artist to observe his subjects psychologically. If Lotto was clinically depressed, as the curator, Matthias Wivel, suggests, this might explain his empathetic observation of inarticulated emotions in the later pictures, which Colm Tóibín called the stubbornness of Lotto (2010).

Berenson’s study was influenced by Jung, but even he offered the important caveat that “Lotto painted few personages we can attempt to identify. And even in the cases where the name is known what does it tell us that is not far better told by the painting itself?” Berenson included one portrait, of the Protonotary Giovanni Guiliani (NG 1105), which has since been downgraded to “Italian, North’. Currently it is not possible to make any direct comparison with undisputed works by the master as I hunted for it in vain upstairs.

In the portrait (c.1512-14) in the first room, loaned by the Uffizi, a youth looks out at us full-square, reminding me at once of Stanley Spencer’s 1914 self-portrait painted at the age of 23 (Tate). Against a nondescript green background, he gazes at us with a questioning sense of interest and self-satisfaction well beyond his years. In 1967, Giulio Paolini replicated this intimate image with identical dimensions and called it Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto. Who he is we do not know, but he certainly enjoyed Lotto’s trust.

Lotto claimed that he was born around 1480 of Venetian stock, and he became a master painter in Treviso, one of the great cities of the Veneto, by 1505, presumably after an apprenticeship in Venice itself. In Treviso, Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi commissioned altarpieces from him, as well as the portrait of himself, aged 36, which was originally covered by an allegorical scene.

© KHM-MuseumsverbandTriple Portrait of a Goldsmith (Bartilomeo Carpan?), c.1525-35, by Lorenzo Lotto

Both panels (Naples and Washington, DC) exhibit a degree of naïvety, as if Lotto was not yet confident in image-making, which is somewhat surprising, as a portrait, arguably the earliest surviving work by him, of an almost sublimely angelic young man, dated to the very end of the 15th century (Bergamo), shows how readily he had already emerged from the shadow of Antonello da Messina, even when the latter’s influence remains clear. In it, another young man looks wistfully towards us and through us, his gaze one of introspection, as if caught in a mirror.

Lotto became widely popular, both in the Venetian territories — he is recorded in Bergamo between 1513 and 1525, and then in his native Venice until 1532 — and further south, in the Marche, where he died as a septuagenarian oblate of the Holy House of Loreto. For a brief spell, he and Raphael had worked in the Vatican Palace at the same time (1508/09), but he seems never to have quite cut it there. He also worked in Dalmatia; the 1527 sacristy portrait of Bishop Tommaso Negri from Split is shown in its original walnut frame.

Apart from their quality and the outstanding details and materiality that he uses to delineate his sitters, each portrait brings us closer to the men and women of a divided Christendom, as the Protestants north of the Alps overturned the Roman hegemony. Lotto’s letters show how increasingly concerned he was at the break-up of Europe after the Reformation.

© Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Edward W. Forbes in memory of Alice F. CaryFriar Angelo Ferreti as St Peter Martyr, 1549, by Lorenzo Lotto

They also testify to how closely he was involved with the Dominicans; a visit to the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition (Arts, 30 November) suggests that members of the Order were quite at ease sitting to portraits and to being portrayed as saints from another age.

At the outset of the year 1526, Lotto painted Marcantonio Luciani, treasurer of the Dominican house of San Zanipolo in Venice, where he hoped to be buried, and he later depicted Fra Angelo Ferretti as St Peter Martyr (1549), a painting of pained and expressive silence. It was income from Ferretti’s formidable sermons which had helped pay for the St Antoninus altarpiece.

Lotto’s account book for 1549 shows that he and Ferretti were friends. He interpolates a book to the traditional iconography of Peter Martyr, and has Ferretti hold a luxury leather-bound volume. Labelled in such a way that the viewer can read the title — Novum Testamentum — it is plainly intended to take on the Protestants at their own game. Catholics, too, it seems to say, preach the Good News.

It is, perhaps, in the unflinching gaze of each sitter that we come closest to realising the honesty of the artist as he sympathetically confronts humanity.

The portrait of a man telling his rosary beads (Nivå, Denmark) is a good case in point. We are tempted to overlook the lakeside behind the window, draped heavily with a rich green curtain, as the sitter stares at us amicably. We have interrupted his devotions, but his ringed fingers will start clacking his beads once we move away.

One of his most attractive portraits is that of Lucina Brembati, another of the generous loans from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, in her thirties. She wears a rope of pearls, and her hair is braided with another string of much larger ones. Around her neck is a gold chain and pendant, and she wears five gold rings and a weasel-pelt stole. Her sumptuous dress would have been the height of fashion in the early 1520s, her husband’s father clearly more than “a sail-maker in Bergamo”.

© Nivaagaards MalerisamlingPortrait of a Man with a Rosary, c.1515-20, by Lorenzo Lotto

Some scholars have thought that the melancholy mood of the nobleman in the Galleria Borghese painting (c.1535) is an indicator of an introspective artist at work. A window high above the imposing sitter’s left shoulder casts little direct light, while the picture on the wall behind him, depicting St George killing the dragon in a large landscape, may reference his name as Giorgio.

Charles I’s Flemish agent, Daniel Nijs, helped secure the Gonzaga collection in Mantua (1627). The triple portrait of a goldsmith, who is depicted in full frontal, full profile, and in three-quarters profile (Vienna) holding a tray of rings, was listed in the second part of the sale.

It was catalogued as “Three heads in a picture of a jeweller” and recorded as one of 19 pictures hanging in the palace chapel. Later, when Nijs filed for bankruptcy, he claimed (June 1631) that he had no reason to know why this particular portrait (with two more “Titians” and several other pictures) had been hidden from his creditors. Really?

It entered the Stuart collection and was widely admired at the time for its extraordinarily inventive posem which might have served to allow a sculptor to use it as a model.

Van Dyck certainly knew the Lotto painting well when it was in London, and famously copied the pose when he painted Charles I in three positions to provide Bernini with a model for an intended bust (Arts, 9 February). We, too, now can see the portrait for free in this richly varied exhibition.

“Lorenzo Lotto Portraits” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 10 February 2019. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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