Lorenzo Lotto, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, March 2 – June 12, 2011
curated by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa
“If I were an artist,” the art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson wrote in 1894, “I would resemble Lorenzo Lotto.” The following year, he published a monograph on Lotto, which marked the beginning of the painter’s return from three hundred years of obscurity. Berenson first saw in Lotto (1480-c.1556) what most admirers have found subsequently: an outlier in Italian Renaissance art, a portrait painter capable of capturing the soul on canvas, a man whose religious art struck a note of sincerity in an age bound by ritual and dogma, a figure overshadowed in life by Titian and Raphael and condemned to poverty and relative failure in his own day. Lotto’s time had come with the twentieth century because what had been seen as defects and eccentricities by his contemporaries turned into objects of fascination in an age dominated by Freud and artistic rebellion. Lotto’s unorthodox altarpieces were embraced for that very reason: they broke with convention and spoke from the heart. By the same token, his portraits veered away from the patterns established by Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian to articulate a different kind of sensibility because he engaged with less exalted and at times rather shopworn specimens of humanity.
The seal was set on Lotto’s artistic rehabilitation by the first, great exhibition dedicated to him at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, in 1953. Subsequently, our documentary knowledge of the painter was increased by the publication of his account books and a series of letters written by the painter in Venice to a group of corporate patrons in the town of Bergamo. These offered an intimate view of the painter’s world, his difficult relations with family, patrons, and fellow artists. Other exhibitions and conferences followed, particularly in 1980 and 1997-98. Indeed this last exhibition in Washington, still carried the subtitle of “rediscovered master of the Renaissance,” something that seemed questionable even then and was subsequently dropped in its European versions in Paris and Bergamo.
If Lotto’s position in sixteenth-century Italian art is secure, then why is there need for another retrospective? The short answer is conservation: of the thirty-four Italian paintings gathered in Rome, seventeen were conserved in time for the inauguration. Amongst these works are eleven altars, including some polyptychs, the majority from remote areas of the Italian Marches where Lotto first found a degree of success and refuge at the end of his life. These works are complemented by strategic loans from leading museums in Europe and the United States—some of staggering importance; the result is a fresh and comprehensive survey of a major if idiosyncratic artist. The ensemble of large altarpieces and smaller cabinet paintings works relatively well in The Scuderie del Quirinale, the sleekly remodeled stables of the old papal palace, which is now one of the chic exhibition spaces in Rome. The galleries downstairs have the height to accommodate altarpieces, and the itinerary is well paced with a restaurant and café located in the middle. If visitors want a break from the paintings, they are offered breathtaking views across Rome as an added bonus.
Many exhibitions today seem designed to appeal to tourism, with an eye to box office rather than scholarly intent. Happily, this is not the case with Lorenzo Lotto. The curator, Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa, has chosen wisely, and his groupings build a comprehensive picture of the artist’s range and his exploration of specific themes, such as portraiture and cabinet works of religious and profane content. Here, the initial suite of galleries, establish Lotto’s origins and orientation in the ambit of Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione. As we lack knowledge of Lotto’s training, much rests upon the visual evidence. Three early works— a sacra conversazione from Quinto di Treviso, the Virgin of the Assumption from Asolo, and the great polyptych of San Domenico from Recanati— all range from 1504 to 1508 in date but give little hint of the kind of artist Lotto would become. Here and there are flashes of brilliance in the translucent coloring of the Asolo panel’s landscape and the Giorgionesque sensibility in the pose of its St Louis of Toulouse; the tragic understatement of the Pietà from the Recanati altarpiece foreshadows the sincerity of his later religious paintings. But the artist’s original intent is difficult to calculate here, thanks to rather harsh lighting and what seems to be aggressive conservation. Here as in a number of Lotto’s early works, the parts seem greater that the whole.
Lotto’s precocious talent led a summons to Rome in 1508 where he formed part of the brilliant équipe of artists at the court of Pope Julius II. These were the years that laid the foundations of the High Renaissance in Rome, and Lotto gained some exposure to Michelangelo and Raphael, working alongside the latter in the papal apartments of the Vatican. He did not stay long, however, but traces of his encounter with Central Italian art can be seen in the extraordinary Transfiguration of Christ, painted for Recanati in 1511-12. Both the scale of the figures and their broad gestures suggest that Lotto took a hard look at Raphael’s early frescoes like the School of Athens and Michelangelo’s first portion of the Sistine ceiling; yet the lessons were only partially absorbed, each figure of the panel conveying a staccato-like effect. One notable element of this work is the remarkable iridescent colors of Christ’s raiment, going from white to pink in a manner reminiscent to the bravura coloring of the ancestors of Christ in Michelangelo’s lunettes in the Sistine Chapel. These larger works are contrasted with a series of predella panels and small devotional paintings, which point to another source of inspiration in the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer. There are also three versions of the penitent St Jerome, dating from 1506 to 1515, which track Lotto’s development in the early part of his career. In them, the artist moves from Bellini towards Titian while absorbing classical prototypes in the Jove-like Jerome from the Museo Nazionale del Castel St. Angelo. The most intriguing of these works is the little-seem St Jerome from the Brukenthal National Museum of Silsin, Romania, which depicts a dynamic, Michelangelesque figure of the saint set within a landscape reminiscent of Correggio and Lombard painting.
By 1513, Lotto had established himself in Bergamo where he would spend a fruitful decade. It is there that he emerged from his chrysalis with one of the most inventive sacre conversazioni of the Renaissance, the altarpiece of San Bernandino. On the surface, this seems to be a typical image of the communion of saint, rapt in contemplation of the Virgin and Child; yet with cinematic daring, the painter zooms in upon the Virgin and Child who glow luminously from within the shadows of a bottle-green canopy. The canopy is sustained by angels in strikingly foreshortened poses that recall Correggio’s altarpiece, La Notte while on a lower tier stand a collection of male saints. These saints seem somewhat detached from the focal point of the painting, which is the relationship between the spectator and the Virgin, indicated by her gaze and the gesture of her left hand outwards rather than towards the Christ Child. In its original and still customary setting, the painting overwhelms the space, virtually drawing us into its vortex, and something of that is still conveyed, even in the relative sterility of a modern gallery. Probably nowhere else in Lotto’s oeuvre is there such a happy conjunction of religious fervor and aesthetic means.
By the same token, the lighting of the Scuderie galleries brings us closer to one of the other highpoints of Lotto’s career, the great pala of St Nicholas in Glory with the Baptist and St Lucy, from the Venetian church of the Carmine. It marks the end of the decade of the 1520s and is extraordinary in its range from the brilliance of the silk textiles of the saint’s vestments to the brooding landscape beneath. The connection between the two registers stems from St Nicholas’s role as intercessor in sea voyages, but it is the panorama with its bird’s-eye view of a harbor and St George fighting the dragon that captures the attention. The distinguished critic Roberto Longhi called this “the purest landscape in Cinquecentro painting—a landscape composed as if by Rembrandt or Ruisdael.” Others have seen more of Patenir here, but the link to northern landscapes is palpable. The altarpiece is quirky, and it ran counter to the prevailing compositions and coloring of Titian. It was probably the work a contemporary had in mind when he censured Lotto’s paintings for their “bad colors,” and it did not lead to other major commissions in his native city.
The exhibition in Rome contains a well-balanced mixture of large and small works that range across the 1520s and early 1540s, probably the prime years of Lotto’s career. The pacing of the installation is good, and the cumulative effect with the smaller works, is of an ethereal and otherworldly concept of religious art: Lotto’s female saints display a family relationship, with faces tending towards abstraction; angels are ephebes; textiles and vegetation lend a quality of verisimilitude. These tendencies are seen at their best in the Holy Family with St Catherine of Alexandria from Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara and in the jewel-like sacra conversazione from the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. When the painter is engaged, the impact is palpable; when not, the result is perfunctory and helps to explain Lotto’s uneven career.
The same could be said of Lotto as a portraitist. There are a series of works devoted to this large aspect of his oeuvre. The exhibition in Rome gives a comprehensive view of his development from the early Giorgionesque images of the Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi and his sister, Giovanna, to the late, penitential Fra Gregorio Belo of Vicenza. The meticulous detail of the Bishop de’ Rossi made later connoisseurs think of Holbein while the inventiveness of Lotto’s triple portrait of a goldsmith was long believed to be by Titian and counted as one of the ornaments of King Charles I’s collection at Whitehall. The best have an edgy quality that combine a confrontational focus on the sitter with an inventive array of props, as in the double portrait of Giovanni Agostino and Niccolò della Torre from the National Gallery in London. The della Torre were Bergamasque noblemen and formed part of Lotto’s circle in that city, and their double portrait is a fascinating document of two humanist scholars in their study. They look towards the spectator in a slightly formal manner that anticipates photography; the noted medic Giovanni Agostino is seated at a table while his son stands behind him. Their expressions are tentative yet inquisitive, but it is the still life on the desk that captures attention: books piled everywhere, papers used as markers, and a much spattered inkwell. There is even a fly on the older man’s handkerchief, to convey a sense of verisimilitude.
Contemporary writers praised portraits that combined a true likeness with an intellectual conceit, and Lotto excelled at this in his nocturnal portrait of Lucina Brembante, with the moon (luna) containing the letters “ci,” thus hinting at the sitter’s name. Even more impressive is the sumptuous study of the wealthy Venetian collector, Andrea Odoni—on loan from the Royal Collection at Hampton Court—shown with his celebrated collection of antiquities but holding a small sculpture of Diana of Ephesus, which he did not actually own. Some, like a later portrait of a man with a felt hat from Ottawa, present Lotto at his best, communicating an unflinching view of human worth through a restrained palette of colors.
The latter part of the exhibition chronicles late works and highlights some of Lotto’s most striking religious paintings. These include the remarkable Annunciation from 1535, in which the Virgin and Gabriel both face the picture plane, confronting us directly with the mystery of the incarnation while a cat jumps at the presence of the angelic visitation. It is a work dense in domestic context and widely reproduced in books on art of the sixteenth century, but it is a rare treat to see it away from Recanati.
The most haunting work is surely the final one, a late, unfinished Presentation of Christ in the Temple from Loreto. Dating to 1554-56, the painter’s powers and arguably his eyesight were much diminished; still it is a remarkable farewell from a painter of “uneasy mind” as Lotto described himself in his will. In the lower register, a semicircle of figures gather in the temple to witness the Virgin handing the Christ Child to the aged priest Simeon. As the Gospel of Luke relates, the old man realizes this is the sign he has been waiting for and takes his leave, saying, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” In the upper register there is a still life of a presbytery and altar, which exert a powerful fascination, all the more so for being virtually featureless and empty. The Presentation was a work forgotten by Lotto’s contemporaries and discounted by his first champions in the nineteenth century, but it is a painting that can now be understood, as Berenson put it, as the most modern painting painted by an Italian Old Master.