The Stubbornness of Lorenzo Lotto

Colm Tóibín

Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1483. He belonged to the same world, therefore, as Titian and Giorgione. Despite the fact that he was a native of the city, however, which they were not, he never became a fully fledged Venetian as they did. By 1503 his name is recorded in legal documents in Treviso as a painter; he also worked in the towns of Recanati and Jesi. In 1509 there is a note that he received payments from the Papal Exchequer for work in the Vatican. (His work did not please the pope and was destroyed within a few years.) In 1513 he undertook to paint frescoes of the life of St Catherine at Bergamo and there is evidence of his activity as a painter there until 1525, when he returned to Venice. There are a number of other documents showing that he was in Venice in 1533, when he made a will, in 1540, in 1545 and in 1548, having spent the intervening periods in Treviso and elsewhere in the Marches. In 1554, he entered a religious community as a lay brother in Loreto and died there a few years later.

As with any serious artist alert to what Forster called the ‘larger disaster that has its roots outside humanity’, it would be too easy to suggest that the intensity, the melancholy, the individuality, the awkwardness, the mystery, the lack of idealisation and simple beauty apparent in Lotto’s handling of the figure in some of his paintings and the background in others arose simply from his travels – that he saw work by Dutch painters, for example, or by Dürer. But it is just as likely that his travels, his working outside Venice for long periods, arose from an uneasiness, a melancholy and an awkwardness which were always there and which made their way into the work. Nonetheless, he is a useful reminder of the affinities between northern Italy and the world north of the Alps.

Lotto’s personality remains of particular interest not only because it seems to have made its way into his work but because it was recorded in a number of documents: there is evidence that he cared about his own singularity as much as he did about the singularity of those he painted. For example, he signed and dated most of his work; he signed his portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre with his son Niccolò and the attribution has never been challenged. Lotto’s account book from 1540 to 1556 records the cost of hiring a female model to undress ‘only to look’. Unlike Titian and Giorgione, he was not a skilled painter of the female or the male nude – or not with the mixture of sexual allure and allegorical alibi in which they specialised – and this may partly account for his failure in Venice.

Also surviving is a series of 39 letters he wrote to the Confraternity of the Misericordia in Bergamo about the progress of work for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. And the will he drew up in Venice in 1546 contained autobiographical material. These documents suggest a personality which Peter Humfrey in his 1997 study of Lotto described as ‘introspective, hypersensitive, often prickly and quick to take offence; but also generous in his affections, tender in his humanity and possessing a quirky sense of humour’. They also make it clear that he never married and was often lonely, possessing a religious sensibility, unlike those of his contemporaries who merely knew how to paint as though they did, ‘and felt much troubled by the crisis in the Church provoked by the Reformation’.

He was not considered a major painter of his age. Vasari, who knew him, devoted very little space to him. Pietro Aretino, another contemporary, preferred the work of Titian. Lodovico Dolce, too, praised the work of Titian while castigating the ‘bad colours’ Lotto had used in his St Nicholas altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. So, for three centuries after his death, Lotto was the painter who wasn’t Titian, the Venetian who hadn’t stayed in Venice. His work was peculiar, imperfect, damaged by his personality and by the sheer quality of the competition.

He was to be woken from his long sleep precisely because of his idiosyncratic personality. The sense of vibrant imperfection in his work – which had seemed odd or outlandish, or just not very interesting, to his contemporaries – appeared to match something in the art and in the critical sensibility emerging at the end of the 19th century. Lotto was re-created as a Renaissance neurotic in the likeness of the age by Bernard Berenson, who wrote a book about him in 1895. (‘I happen to have a temperament,’ Berenson grandly wrote, ‘which inclines me to forgive much in an artist like Lotto.’) Since then he has often had the dubious honour of being considered one of the most ‘interesting’ painters of the Renaissance, rather than, say, one of the best. An exhibition of his work, showing 108 pictures, was mounted in the Doge’s Palace in Venice in 1953. In 1997 a show, Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, was put on at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and then in Bergamo and the Grand Palais in Paris. Lotto is known as a figure lost in his own time, unappreciated by his major contemporaries and then forgotten and now rediscovered. As the 20th century went on his unique vision – what he mercilessly saw in the faces of those who sat for him – seemed to matter almost as much as the stability and harmony and grace in the work of those painters who stayed in Venice once they arrived there and got on with making things glorious and perfect. The last sentence of Berenson’s book was: ‘His spirit is more like our own than, perhaps, that of any other Italian painter of his time, and it has all the appeal and fascination of a kindred soul in another age.’

This spirit was first made apparent in a number of early portraits painted in Treviso, including one of Bishop Bernardo de Rossi, from around 1505, which is concerned with expression of personality rather than power. Another, Portrait of a Woman, offers a severe and unflattering likeness, a startling image of a woman who seems uncomfortable and dissatisfied, oddly disappointed; it captures an uneasy psychology rather than a graceful, complete, reassuring physiognomy. There is also Young Man with a Lamp, in which the young man is inquiring rather than settled or in repose; there is something oddly resentful about his gaze. In none of these three paintings is Lotto engaged in any commentary on the human condition, or interested in allegory or in showing his figures as representing a profession or a vocation or having wealth or possessions. They are in possession of a face, and a gaze, and it is the face which Lotto is interested in, the face and the gaze almost in opposition to each other, the face they seek to control and the gaze in which the control is lost; and in the struggle something deeper emerges, something of the hidden self, the personality and its suffering and uneasy privacy.

Lotto lived in Bergamo between around 1513 and 1525. It is possible that part of the pleasure of being there, and in Treviso, was that Titian was elsewhere, that there was no great competitor in the city. Nor was there any great tradition of commissioning portraits. This meant that when Lotto made a portrait he could do so without worrying that the sitter would feel exposed or demeaned when Lotto’s portrait was compared to a more charming, complete or flattering one of a neighbour done by a competing painter.

Lorenzo Lotto, ‘Giovanni Agostino della Torre and His Son, Niccolò’ (c.1513-16)
Lorenzo Lotto, ‘Giovanni Agostino della Torre and His Son, Niccolò’ (c.1513-16)

In his monograph, Humfrey suggests that Lotto’s portrait of Giovanni Agostino della Torre and his son, now in the National Gallery in London, was probably the earliest of his Bergamo portraits. The father was an eminent physician, prior of the college of physicians from 1510 until his death in 1516. Humfrey agrees that the painting’s composition is ‘undeniably awkward’ and considers the possibility that the son was added later but then rejects the idea, since it is clear that something or someone was needed all along in the right-hand corner of the painting; as he writes, ‘technical examination has not revealed the previous existence of a feature such as a window on the right which would always have been needed to balance the still life on the left.’ He goes on to say that ‘the placing of the son and heir in a plane behind that of the father may be intended to express the idea of professional and family lineage.’ But it isn’t clear whether Lotto wanted to make a portrait of a father and a son from the beginning or whether he wanted to make a portrait of the father and it didn’t work, so he added the son.

We must be alert to the idea that some of the painting has faded. It was restored and cleaned before 1812 and again in 1859-60 in Milan, and then varnished and perhaps ‘repaired’ in 1863. It was cleaned again and varnished in 1884 and polished in 1925 and 1936. And cleaned and restored again in 1965 when the mid-19th-century overpaint was easily removed. It was surface-cleaned in 1993. The whites in the painting are well preserved and so, importantly, is the face of the father. There are no areas of complete loss, but the area of the son’s shirt and collar is a blurred version of the restoration in 1859-60 in Milan.

Research has shown that Agostino was himself the son of a doctor and that the family had commercial interests too; the tunic and the belt suggest rank. His son, Niccolò, had married a rich woman and both men were supporters of the pro-Venetian Guelph party in Bergamo. The son was expelled from Bergamo in 1510 when the Venetians lost control of the city they had ruled since 1428. A petition to the governor, who was a patient of the father’s, described as the most eminent doctor in the whole of the Italian peninsula, saved the son. In May 1512 the French took the son to Milan as a hostage but in October, when the Venetians retook the city, he returned and was elected to the city council. (The Venetians took the city again in 1516 after a period of three years when the Spanish held it; it was during this period that Lotto painted the portrait.)

All this is important because it makes clear that these two men were not obscure figures whose faces Lotto liked, and whose portraits he could do as he pleased with; they were wealthy figures of considerable public importance and influence in Bergamo. In 1527 the son’s tax returns show him to have been one of the wealthiest men in the city. This makes the painting even more interesting, because it would have been clear to those who saw it that it was a painting of power and privilege, as any commissioned portrait must have been, and thus the aura in the painting of powerlessness and puzzlement is something that possibly no one noticed much at the time (since the painting did not involve any actual removal of power from the two individuals in question, whose prestige may have been enhanced by the fact that it was made at all), whereas it is what we notice now, more than we notice anything else.

The painting may be, as the National Gallery’s current catalogue suggests, ‘itself a document of some interest for students of the turbulent political history of Lombardy in the early 16th century’, but it is principally of interest because of the haunting way the face of the old physician is painted. On the one hand the face seems a miracle of pure control, like something made out of marble or ivory, filled with dignity and aged wisdom, and on the other hand, the flesh as painted has a flickering, bloodless texture and tone, the tone you see in the face in repose of a freshly made corpse.

Somewhere to the left of the painting there is clearly a window, the light from it grading its way softly across the grey-brown surface at the top, darkening as it moves, or as your eye moves. There is also light coming from the front of the painting, from the painter himself, and this catches on a number of metal objects, including the father’s ring and the various clasps on his belt and on the cover of the book he is holding, as it does on the very tip of his thumb and the end of one of the laces that hold his tunic at the neck. It is reflected in his eyes, in the centre of them, and in those of his son, towards the upper left side of them. The bottom of the father’s left eye has a glistening mark so tiny it is hard to know what it means, or how long it has been there, but it would be nice to think it was put there by Lotto as he turned the brush in a minute, brilliant gesture. When you look closely at the father’s right eye, it seems to have part of it detached, or spread out.

The father’s face is divided into two, which is why looking at it is so oddly fascinating and unsettling. There is something startling in the difference between his two eyes. If you view them from a distance, the picture suggests that he is placid, wise, unshockable; if you go closer then it seems that he is perhaps about to speak, or has spoken. No matter what you do, there is something dry and mask-like about his face. It has the paleness of death, all wax and ivory, and yet it is deeply, exquisitely alive, the expression so thoughtful, with suggestions of a rich and complex inner life, a deep introspection.

I am refusing to read the fly which has landed on the father’s scarf as a symbol of anything. It is a fly and it is delicately painted. It is there, resting from flight. It is a joke – as lizards, squirrels and cats appear as amusing things to divert the eye in other Lotto paintings. It offers another sort of life to the painting, as does the ink spattered around the inkwell and the way the books are piled and the way the papers on the desk are placed. The painting may need all this because of the inertia of the main figure. The fly disrupts the sense that this is not a portrait of someone alive in real time, that the father, instead of being captured alive by the paint, has been moved by it into another realm. It adds to the untidiness of things in the painting: the desk, the wrinkles on the old man’s neck, the tassels of the scarf.

Despite this untidiness, there are symmetries in the composition, even if they are uneasy ones. For example, the browny orangeness of the book the old man is holding and the whiteness of the open pages matches the whiteness of the pages he is holding in his right hand and the greenness of the tablecloth. Also, the book he is holding matches the book that is resting on the table against the back wall. If the father is the centre, then the nearest symmetry with the son’s face, which is not much symmetry at all, is this book resting high against the wall. It is worth mentioning only because it is hard not to think of what might be on the other side (or what might have been planned for there) were the son’s face not intruding. Further untidiness maybe, some more books, maybe a wall of books, maybe a painting, maybe a window. None of these, however, would have the same effect, the same power, as the son’s face, which serves to pull the eye towards his father’s face at the centre of the painting, rather than away from it, as it might have. Oddly, the son is his father’s shadow, a haunting presence in the background, even though his father is haunting too. Instead of operating as a distraction, or being a partner in the portrait offering a sense of a new generation, you realise that what the son is partly doing is watching Lotto paint his father, who is barely conscious that he is being painted.

The father is stoical, not bothered too much by earthly things; he is alert to the catastrophe – Forster’s ‘larger disaster’ – that is beyond humanity’s reach and comprehension. His face is filled with knowledge, a knowledge held within the self, while his son seems to live easily in the world that has been offered to him: he is involved in this world with simplicity and some intelligence. He has heard only the world’s noise, unlike his father, whose face has been frozen by another sound, a sound which has offered him no comfort at all, merely knowledge that has set him apart and that no amount of books in the background or writing will assuage. The world of the inner self in all its anxieties in this deeply sorrowful painting belongs to the father alone. The son is merely watching. If he is worried, the worry is caused by immediate concerns, the things of this world. He, the son, looms larger and is out of proportion; there is more colour in his face and more definition in his features, although they both have the same-shaped nose. He is young and has ruddy cheeks and full lips; he has nothing of the exquisite, infinite, ashen-faced sadness of his father. As your eye moves from one to the other, the son seems a figure of great mute innocence.

Under the father’s tunic there is black fabric; the son’s coat is black, with a blue collar which finds echoes in the blue-black of his hat, although the son’s hat has undergone changes in cleaning and restoration so it is hard to know what it might once have looked like. The father’s hat is a pure and beautiful black. Black may be significant here. Since it was not a colour which openly displayed very great prestige, and since dyers were producing more expensive and better quality black, it may have been a sign of wealth rather than rank. (Lotto’s Young Man with a Lamp from 1506 uses a very beautiful sumptuous black.) Or it just may have been an easy colour to paint, or suitable for that place in the composition. It did not necessarily denote sadness, though of course it could. A treatise on colour written in Sicily in 1430 recorded: ‘Even though the colour black seems sad, it is of high standing and great virtue. That is why the merchants and rich bourgeois, men as well as women, are dressed and adorned in it … Black is not more base or scorned than the other beautiful colours that dyers make in their ovens and boilers. One sometimes even finds black fabrics of a price equal to that of precious scarlets.’ There are shadows on the white undershirt of the son. There are clean black lines used for delineation in the painting, between, for example, the father’s beautifully subtle tunic and the dark green table-covering at the back.

Slowly, as you look again at their faces, it is hard not to feel that, besides the fact that he probably wanted to be in the painting and liked watching the painter, or felt he should be there, even though he had, it seems, no interest in being watched himself, the son solves a pictorial problem created by the very intensity of the deathlike sculpture of the father’s face – an intensity which was not part of any tradition which Lotto could draw on. He could not check out how Bellini or Titian or Giorgione had solved this problem. They were not in the business of painting a rich man to look unfinished and forlorn. Against books and writing, against youth standing behind him, the face of the father is, at certain moments as you look, deeply unsatisfactory, in need of something. It is too flat, with problems in the way the eyes are painted, and the size of the head, and the skin tones, and the lip at the left almost not there. There is not enough life; he is embalmed by the paint as much as brought to life by it. It is something that would have to be rescued, however crudely, by the figure behind.

A window, an opening to the world, a banal scene in the distance, some trees maybe, or a hill, a blue sky, or a wall-hanging rich in its textures (Lotto was good with carpets and rugs), a bookshelf: any of these would have left the figure of the father too obvious and flat. It would have made the painting look bad, inept. What the son did was to close off the painting and at the same time give it depth. He made his father’s helplessness, which had been created by the paint, seem forlorn and memorable and unsettling rather than a mistake. The painting, then, is of two different figures in two different poses, by the hand of a painter who knew two different things, or knew enough not to try to make the ambiguous miracle of the father twice. It is clear that if the face behind were also short on life and lacked blood and resembled a mask, then the power of the first image would be reduced; it would seem like a failure, its inwardness merely like an absence of outwardness, a brute refusal to comfort the viewer or endear itself to us.

There is a significant absence in the painting: the absence of certain colours – of reds, or yellows, or bright blues. The background colour, while gradated, is sombre; the colour of the clothes is dark, austere. The brightest colour is reserved for the medical tome in the father’s hand, but it is bathed in shadow. The light on the green on the table’s edge at the left-hand corner of the painting may be the result of fading rather than the colour it was actually painted. This austerity may have a simple explanation. It may be what Lotto wanted to do for a change. At around the same time he was making religious paintings with bright colours. But there may be something else involved. It may be that Lotto, in his restlessness and his religious feelings, and his mixture of worldly ambition and deep spiritual sense, may have begun, even briefly, and despite himself, to embody something of what was to come in the Reformation. He seems to have possessed an unreformed spirit, a spirit which he displayed in his religious paintings and which emerged clearly in his life (in his devotion to the Dominican Order, for example), but in 1540 he also made a copy of a portrait of Martin Luther. Maybe we should not make too much of this, since there is no evidence that he was personally ready to go over to Luther’s side. But it is possible that, before Luther’s word became dangerous, he embodied it in one of his works.

It is worth remembering this, that in 1515, just two years before Luther sparked the Reformation, in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, which had been going through its own tumults, Lotto made this secular painting of two men. One of them seemed to carry an individuality in his face, a vision that seemed bereft of easy hope or compositional completion, but carried with it a sort of implacability, a stubbornness, a power which came from knowledge and a sense, written into every inch of his face, that he was someone who would not take orders easily or go looking for indulgences. The palette Lotto used in the painting might be called proto-Protestant in its refusal to use colours of which Calvin, and Melanchthon, might have later disapproved. In Black: The History of a Colour, Michel Pastoureau asks: ‘Did a Calvinist palette truly exist? And, more generally, was there a Protestant palette?’[*] ‘For my part,’ Pastoureau wrote, ‘I believe so. The Protestant painters’ palette seems to me to possess something dominant and recurring that gives them an authentic uniqueness: a general temperance, a horror of bright, busy colours, a predominance of black and dark tones, grisaille effects, the play of monochromes, an avoidance of all that offends the eye by altering the chromatic economy of the painting through disrupting the tonality.’

It is possible, then, to read the painting as part of an argument which Lotto was having with himself, and to see it as a portrait of a man of conscience at his most sad and strange and aloof and oddly noble. Man, for Lotto here, had no epic qualities. He was, instead, vividly alone with his mind. The last word on Lotto belongs to Bernard Berenson:

Lorenzo Lotto was … a psychological painter in an age which ended by esteeming little but force and display, a personal painter at a time when personality was fast getting to be of less account than conformity, evangelical at heart in a country upon which a rigid and soulless Vaticanism was daily strengthening its hold … Even if circumstances had been more favourable, it is probable that Lotto’s reputation would have paled before that of his great rival, who gained and kept, through a long lifetime, the attention of the public. Achievements so brilliant and so well advertised as Titian’s could leave but scant room for the European fame of a painter, the appreciation of whose peculiar merits required a better trained eye and a more delicate sense of personality than were common in the camps of Charles V or in the court of Philip II.

For us, Lotto’s value is of a different sort. Even if modern art were not educating us, as it is, to appreciate the technical merit of works like his, nevertheless, personality moulding a work of art into a very semblance of itself is so rare a phenomenon in any age that we cannot afford to neglect it.

[*] Princeton, 216 pp., £24.95, October 2008, 978 0 691 13930 2.