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LORENZO LOTTO – POR­TRAITS Na­tional Gallery, to 10th Fe­bru­ary


Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, 22nd Novem­ber to 3rd Fe­bru­ary

The more one looks at, or rather into, a por­trait by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557), the more in­trigu­ing it be­comes and the more one finds to ad­mire.

The same is true of his re­li­gious paint­ings (group por­traits in nar­ra­tive form), since they are all full of sym­bols, re­buses, al­lu­sions and in­ci­dents that il­lu­mi­nate the sit­ter or the sub­ject. This was fash­ion­able at the time, and not all are easy for us to read – nor were they al­ways easy for con­tem­po­raries. Vasari once had to write a let­ter of ex­pla­na­tion to a sit­ter whose por­trait he had loaded with sym­bols.

Lotto was a great pain­ter of not just faces but also hands, which many artists pre­ferred to hide away. Ges­tures are also im­por­tant in show­ing the life of his sub­jects. Flow­ers are of­ten part of his sto­ries. In Por­trait of a Woman In­spired by Lu­cre­tia, there is a sprig of stocks or wallflow­ers ( Erysi­mum cheiri) on the table be­side her. The flower may sym­bol­ise love, but the Ital­ian vi­o­la­ciocca im­plies rav­ish­ment as well as ro­mance (a snip­pet that I owe to a friend of my col­league David Wheeler). Else­where one finds jas­mine, ivy and roses, along with jewels, sci­en­tific in­stru­ments, scales, books and doc­u­ments with per­ti­nent in­scrip­tions.

Ar­chi­tects and crafts­men, such as a cross­bow-maker, have the tools of their trades. Oddly, the col­lec­tor An­drea Odoni is sur­rounded by casts and mod­els that ap­pear to have been Lotto’s rather than his. This is a por­trait that Vasari, who was an ad­mirer of Lotto in so far as he ad­mired any non-floren­tine artist, sin­gled out for praise.

Although he was at one time a fol­lower of Bellini, this show is very much more than a pen­dant to the Na­tional Gallery’s over­lap­ping Man­tegna and Bellini show.

It has been or­gan­ised with the Prado, where it has al­ready been seen, and in­cludes many of his best works from around the world, to­gether with draw­ings and re­lated ob­jects, in­clud­ing a Turk­ish car­pet of the sort that was one of his trade­marks.

In­cluded are such mas­ter­pieces as the Por­trait of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505), from the Museo di Capodi­monte in Naples, and the mon­u­men­tal al­tar­piece of The Alms of St An­ton­i­nus of Florence (1540-2) from Santi Gio­vanni e Paulo in Venice, com­ing to the UK for the first time. Here Lotto not only in­serted por­traits of mem­bers of the com­mis­sion­ing con­fra­ter­nity but also, highly un­usu­ally, paid poor peo­ple to sit for him. The El­derly Gen­tle­man with Gloves (1542-4) is ‘widely re­garded as one of Lotto’s finest por­traits – and there­fore as one of the finest por­traits in Ital­ian Re­nais­sance paint­ing’. It is no doubt be­cause his pa­trons were not princes or great aris­to­crats that he was able to pro­duce such per­cep­tive and con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters. He was a pow­er­ful colourist and a truly great pain­ter of faces.

The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery cel­e­brates an­other great face-pain­ter in a show de­voted to Gainsborough’s stud­ies of his fam­ily, in­clud­ing their dogs.

Sev­eral of the 50 or so works have never been shown in Bri­tain, in­clud­ing an early por­trait of his fa­ther. Oth­ers, such as The Pain­ter’s Daugh­ters chas­ing a But­ter­fly (c 1756) and The Pain­ter’s Daugh­ters with a Cat (c 1760-1), have come only from next door, but are given new res­o­nance by be­ing seen in the se­quence from child­hood to apoth­e­o­sis, as el­e­gant, young women sadly doomed to die early.

‘Col­umn A is things they said would kill you ten years ago but are now con­sid­ered to­tally good for you. Col­umn B is things they cur­rently think will kill you’

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