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Art: An Enchanting Strangeness

8 minute read
Robert Hughes

It seems improbable that, by now, there could be such a creature as a great but little-known 16th century Italian painter, but so it is–at least in America–with Lorenzo Lotto (circa 1480-1556). The current show of 51 of his paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, co-curated by art historians David Alan Brown, Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco, is actually the first ever held in the U.S. It can’t pretend to give a full view of Lotto, the bulk of whose work consisted of some 40 altarpieces in various towns in northern Italy–Bergamo, Recanati, Jesi. Neither these nor the masterpiece of his religious work, the powerful, almost neurotically emotive Lamentation, circa 1530, in Monte San Giusto, could be lent, and the result is a view of Lotto more skewed to his secular paintings–portraits, allegories and so on–than one might ideally have wished.

But never mind. It’s a delicious and intelligently presented exhibition, almost perfect of its kind, and completely free of the depressing curatorial gimmickry that American museums so often go in for these days. It sets before you a sparsely documented man of whom enough will never be known: a devout religious painter who lived through a time of doctrinal crisis in the church, which left visible marks on his already self-reproachful and even morbid personality; a link between the exaggerated graces of Botticelli (who died when Lotto was around 30) and the learned artificialities of Mannerism; an Italian who saw the point of Netherlandish art and Hieronymus Bosch along with Germans like Altdorfer and, especially, Durer, not long after Durer himself was being changed by Venice.

Because Lotto was away from Venice in the first 20 years of the 16th century, he missed the “painterly” pictorial revolution that was going on there, which is why his work can look a bit liny and (relatively) old-fashioned, closer to Giovanni Bellini than to young Titian. Drawing creates more of his pictorial structure than color does; yet he was a marvelous colorist, suave, moody at times, and capable of a mysterious lyricism that reminds you of Giorgione, his senior by only a few years. Except that the color goes to extremes: icing-green, purple, sky blue and orange, oddly predicting the dissonant colors of Mannerism.

Today it is Lotto’s strangeness that enchants–or, more precisely, the way he assimilates strangeness into naturalism. The show includes what must surely be the most peculiar image of the Annunciation ever painted. We’re looking into the Virgin’s chamber. She is in the foreground, looking girlish and distraught, facing you and throwing up her hands as though she were appealing for help. And why not? The angel, bearing the news that God has just impregnated her (you can see God in the background, as invasive and patriarchal as could be), seems to have fairly burst into the room. A cat, scared witless by the angel’s irruption, bounds away, back arched–you can almost hear it hiss. The painting is funny and reverent, gawky and vernacular and dreamlike, all at the same time. Hence its modern appeal.

Lotto liked to inject unexpected naturalist details into religious scenes, but once there, they don’t rupture the sacred moment; they enhance it. Thus in his Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1534, one of the shepherds is showing the baby Christ a lamb, whose head the child grabs at, nearly sticking his thumb in its eye, with infantile curiosity. This looks like the most natural of gestures, but it makes a fluent symbolic point as well, since one is expected to read it as Christ embracing the image of his future self-sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb.

Lotto was born in Venice, and he lived there intermittently through the last 24 years of his life, but most of his work was done in the “provinces”–not necessarily a bad thing for a painter in the early 16th century, since the competition in Venice was so intense and intelligent patronage was plentiful in smaller towns. Lotto seems to have been diligent rather than aggressive: hypersensitive, a loner and ill-adapted to the scramble for commissions. “Old, alone, without anyone faithful to manage things for me, and very anxious in my mind”–so he described himself in his will.

It was not easy to forge a career in the same city, at the same time, as a man of Titian’s stature. Titian used up all the air in the room; you couldn’t compete with him. But Lotto wasn’t trying to be Titian (which was just as well), and this, in the stacked deck of hierarchical opinion, which didn’t take account of the fact that different artists had different aims and temperaments, told against his reputation. After he died, it went into decline. Lotto didn’t drop out of sight, like Vermeer, and have to be completely rediscovered. But he wasn’t highly valued in the later 16th century or after. Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550) was the cornerstone of Western art history, paid him little attention, and later art chroniclers were apt to assign his work to other artists. And–just as bad–other artists’ work was assigned to him.

Serious Lotto scholarship, based on newly unearthed documents (including Lotto’s studio journal), didn’t begin until the late 19th century. When Bernard Berenson wrote the monograph that defined Lotto’s oeuvre in 1895, he caused a scandal by throwing out scores of pseudo-Lottos. Collectors, particularly ducal ones in Britain, were enraged by the high-handedness with which this young, upstart American Jew downgraded their swans to ducks, but the fact was that Berenson was 90% right in his Lotto reattributions. From this point the critical overhaul of Lotto slowly began.

His psychological complexity and the deep-running poetic current that came out of it seem (as they seemed to the young Berenson a century ago) peculiarly congenial to modern eyes. His work is sown with recondite allegories, complicated quirks, unexpected twists of meaning. Despite its often ravishing formal beauty, it is full of unease. Apart from Durer’s famous etching Melancholia, Renaissance art can show no more poignant portrayal of the way depression freezes both action and curiosity in its sufferers than Lotto’s Portrait of a Young Man, circa 1530. It depicts its subject with sallow face, deep dark eyes and Hamlet-black clothes, idly toying with the pages of an unread book; drying rose petals are scattered on the table next to a watching lizard, emblem of cold-bloodedness.

We are apt to think of Renaissance portraiture as straightforward: here’s Duke X, the man to the life, speaking through his realistic effigy; that’s the armor he wore when he did the Turk in–and so forth. Lotto’s portraits tend to be more complicated than that. Take, for instance, his magnificently assured portrait of Andrea Odoni, 1527. Odoni, a rich Venetian, collected Greco-Roman antiquities, and the clue to this painting is the statuette he shows in his hand–an image of Artemis, goddess of the Ephesians, denounced by St. Paul. But his other hand clasps a crucifix to his breast, declaring that despite his passion for the antique, he believes in Christ, not pagan idols.

Lotto’s taste for allegory and emblems is catnip to art historians who go for obscurities in the text, but coming as messages across a cultural gap of nearly half a millennium, they can be maddeningly difficult to read. Portrait of a Married Couple, 1523-24, looks like an ordinary marriage portrait, painted with exquisite fluency and respect: an upper-class man with a squarish, brown-bearded face (he looks oddly like the late Gianni Versace) sitting at a table with an equally patrician woman, Venetian evidently, from the white lapdog she is holding. Her right hand rests devotedly on her husband’s upper arm. Marital concord.

Yes, but: the catalog, having identified him as Gian Maria Cassotti, and his wife as Laura Assonica from Bergamo, makes the surprising point that when Lotto painted their likeness, she was dead, so that Cassotti is sitting down with her ghost. One of his hands points to a squirrel, curled up in sleep. Squirrels had an emblematic reputation for sleeping through the worst of storms, and indeed a high wind is bending the trees seen through the window behind. Cassotti, one sees on closer inspection, is red-eyed and weeping. He holds up a paper, the center of Lotto’s composition, on which are written the words HOMO NUMQUAM: “A man, never.” In sum, a good widower will never find release from turmoil and grief in sleep: he will always remember his Laura.

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