Roll up for a Lotto jack­pot

A rare show of this great Vene­tian artist’s work re­veals his ex­cep­tional un­der­stand­ing of his sub­jects – and be­comes a vivid por­trait of Lotto him­self

The Observer - The New Review - - Art - Laura Cum­ming

His por­traits are puz­zles, his life enig­matic, his rep­u­ta­tion bizarrely ne­glected. Yet any­one who vis­its this tremen­dous ex­hi­bi­tion will be in­stantly struck by one clear and cer­tain truth about the Vene­tian mas­ter Lorenzo Lotto (c 1480-1557), which is his sin­gu­lar psy­cho­log­i­cal ge­nius.

It is right there in the first por­trait, of the bishop of Tre­viso, his light blue eyes tena­cious and shrewd, face as tense as the hand grip­ping a le­gal scroll prob­a­bly re­lated to his cam­paigns against cor­rupt lo­cal grandees. Lotto shows him as a for­mi­da­ble force, brave enough to sur­vive their as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts: the Re­nais­sance equiv­a­lent of to­day’s coura­geous anti-mafia lawyers.

The bishop ap­pears re­mark­ably aware of be­ing painted. Lotto’s sit­ters al­ways have this height­ened sense of self-con­scious­ness. The anx­ious mer­chant, the ner­vous scholar, the el­derly lawyer: each seems to see his life summed up in the mo­ment of de­pic­tion. And Lotto awards them all the same gift: a star­tling com­bi­na­tion of in­ten­sity and pro­fun­dity.

Lotto was born in Venice just after Gior­gione, whom he ad­mired, and just be­fore Ti­tian, with whom he has been con­fused. His life was no­madic, cir­cu­lat­ing be­tween Berg­amo, Tre­viso, Venice, the Marches and Rome, where he briefly worked along­side Raphael at the Vat­i­can, though these paint­ings were ap­par­ently dis­liked and re­jected. His work may be less fa­mil­iar, but Lotto’s char­ac­ter is far bet­ter known than any of these con­tem­po­raries be­cause he left elo­quent writ­ten tes­ti­monies to his own wor­ried, de­fen­sive, iso­lated and fre­quently de­pres­sive cast of mind. In art as in life, his motto seems to have been Know Thy­self.

The look of his por­traits – and, to some ex­tent, the many al­tar­pieces – is both pen­e­trat­ing and idio­syn­cratic. Beau­ti­fully lit faces ap­pear al­most eerily im­me­di­ate against dark back­drops or Lotto’s fa­mous green cur­tains. He did away with the usual ledge or para­pet to bring his sit­ters closer, and painted cou­ples in widescreen hor­i­zon­tal for­mats. There is no con­ven­tional rhetoric or flat­tery here, far from it. The ques­tion ev­ery time is: what is odd or strik­ing about this hu­man be­ing – and their por­trait?

A Berg­amo doc­tor props one arm on a table the bet­ter to present a cum­ber­some book to us in the other. The kil­ter­ing an­gle is strange enough but the eyes are red-rimmed and the face has a green­ish pal­lor, as if this physi­cian had failed to heal him­self. Lean­ing even more awk­wardly into the pic­ture be­hind him is his son, a grown man still ap­par­ently held back in the shad­ows. There is ink spat­ter on the table and a bee­tle climbs omi­nously up the doc­tor’s spot­less scarf.

A woman in an ex­pen­sive vel­vet dress, its striped arms slashed to re­veal gor­geous silk puffs, a fine gold net cape tucked into one shoul­der – all exquisitely painted

– is pos­ing for the role of Lu­cre­tia, leg­endary hero­ine of an­cient Rome. She holds up a draw­ing of Lu­cre­tia to make the point, which is fur­ther con­firmed in an em­phatic note propped on a table. But she can’t quite pull off the pose and looks al­most piqued at all the ef­fort in­volved in this not-quite al­le­gor­i­cal por­trait. The il­lu­sion of virtue is trumped by re­al­ity.

Lotto is a kind of cryp­to­por­traitist, slip­ping real peo­ple into re­li­gious scenes, where they of­ten ap­pear quite at home with all the go­ings-on. This is partly be­cause his saints and an­gels are usu­ally drawn from the same re­al­ity. He is also a mas­ter of the ca­sual yet dis­turb­ing sym­bol. Here is Lucina Brem­bati, a large beam­ing woman in pearls, slightly coy, all her gold jew­ellery on bo­somy dis­play. The fact that she is smil­ing is un­usual enough in Re­nais­sance art, and she is more­over ap­pear­ing by the light of a moon in which the ini­tials CI faintly ap­pear (in­serted into the mid­dle of the word “luna”, they make her name). But the com­pla­cency of the woman and the nov­elty of the scene are both un­der­mined by a vi­cious weasel draped around her arm that doesn’t look safely dead.

An­i­mals have the strangest pres­ence in Lotto’s pic­tures, no­tably the squir­rel ly­ing be­tween a rich hus­band and wife, dead cen­tre on their car­pet-cov­ered table. He leans over it, bran­dish­ing a note that reads “Homo Numquam” – man never; but never what? Many the­o­ries have been pro­posed over the years, but not one of them re­ally be­gins to ex­plain the mys­tery of this weird com­po­si­tion.

The cu­ra­tors re­fer to a storm go­ing on out­side the win­dow, yet the sky ap­pears per­fectly blue. They also have a purely al­le­gor­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the as­ton­ish­ing por­trait in which a young man, pale-faced, slightly rep­til­ian, bends over the books in his study. Rose petals have dropped upon the desk and the table be­hind him cer­tainly re­sem­bles a cof­fin, so that al­lu­sions to the death of love (or his mother: an­other claim) seem at least rea­son­able. But the por­trait is more than all this, with its for­bid­ding at­mos­phere and chilly white light. Star­ing up at the young man from its mo­men­tary perch on the desk is a lizard. One cold-blooded crea­ture look­ing at an­other.

There is a por­trait here in which Lotto doesn’t hold back, send­ing up a plump young plu­to­crat in the

The ques­tion ev­ery time is: what is odd or strik­ing about this hu­man be­ing?

act of be­trothal as he turns smugly to the viewer in­stead of his fi­ance. But the artist al­ways sees more, one feels, than the sit­ters them­selves. The mas­ter­piece of the show is his tremen­dous paint­ing of the Vene­tian col­lec­tor An­drea Odoni, one hand to his breast, the other reach­ing dra­mat­i­cally to­wards us, hold­ing an an­cient statue. It is a mag­nif­i­cent im­age of ob­ses­sion and wealth – sculp­tures all around him – but also of anx­i­ety and un­ease.

Greek stat­ues turn their back on Odoni. A Ro­man head forces out from be­neath the table­cloth, nearly as an­i­mate and hu­man as he is; cer­tainly more heroic. There is money on the table and pur­chases to come, no doubt, but the light is low and the fleshy face some­what melan­choly. I col­lect these, Odoni’s ex­trav­a­gant ges­tures im­ply; or is it that they col­lect me?

Ten years be­fore his death, Lotto wrote that “art did not earn me what I spent”. He did not mean money alone, although he was once forced to auc­tion off his own paint­ings. The sense of how much he gave to art is ev­ery­where ap­par­ent in this show – above all in the late por­traits that pre­fig­ure Rem­brandt in their ex­cep­tional depth. Old men stand­ing alone against glow­ing brown grounds, un­der­stood and mourned and praised with such grave and metic­u­lous clar­ity. Monks and schol­ars, mer­chants and sol­diers: in Lotto’s eyes they are suf­fer­ing yet pa­tient, wise but re­strained, unil­lu­sioned and yet some­how still hope­ful.

This is the first Lotto show in Bri­tain in more than half a cen­tury. With only 30 pic­tures it is hardly large, but to see them all to­gether is to have a grow­ing por­trait of Lotto him­self. In what may be a late self-por­trait, closely cropped and painted in oil on pa­per, his eyes look down and to one side, search­ing for some­thing that can­not be seen in the face alone. It might be the very im­age of his mind. In old age, he en­tered a monastery. In­creas­ingly con­cerned with the spir­i­tual and the poor, Lotto went to live among them.

© Her Majesty Queen El­iz­a­beth II 2018

LEFTAn­drea Odoni, 1527, ‘the mas­ter­pieceof the show’. Royal Col­lec­tion Trust/

© State Her­mitage Mu­seum, 2017

ABOVEPor­trait of a Mar­ried Cou­ple, 1523-24, with the mys­te­ri­ous ‘Homo Numquam’ note – and a squir­rel.

© Fon­dazione Ac­cademia Car­rara, Berg­amo

LEFTA rare Re­nais­sance smile in Lotto’s Por­trait of Lucina Brem­bati, c1521-3, hold­ing a weasel ‘that doesn’t look safely dead’.

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