Obscure Venetian Misfit Deserves a Lotto Praise

It cannot have been easy to work in the shadow of Titian, especially if-like Lorenzo Lotto (circa 1480-1556/57)-you were Venetian-born, which the slightly younger Titian, one of the supreme masters of Venetian painting, was not. Yet to be overshadowed by Titian was only one of the many adversities Lotto endured in his lifetime. By all accounts, his was a hypersensitive and deeply religious sensibility, quick to take offense and given to abrupt career moves that condemned him for long stretches to the life of an itinerant painter in the provinces. When he was called to Rome in 1508 to work on the decoration of the papal apartments in the Vatican palace, his efforts failed to meet with papal approval and were soon destroyed. And when, late in life, he returned to his native Venice, he found that the incipient vogue for Mannerist painting had rendered his work unfashionable.

Lotto died in provincial obscurity, and for a long time thereafter, he remained largely unknown-unknown, that is, as Lorenzo Lotto. For some of his pictures were attributed to Titian or Correggio. This was, of course, high praise but did little to establish Lotto as a master in his own right. It wasn’t until 1895, when Bernard Berenson published his great monograph on the artist, that Lotto was at last rehabilitated. This was one of the most remarkable feats in the history of modern connoisseurship, and a vivid reminder of what it means to bring an expert “eye” to the study of the masters. What we know today as the oeuvre of Lorenzo Lotto is still largely the body of work codified by Berenson’s monograph in 1895.

Now, more than a century after that pioneering publication, the first exhibition ever to be devoted to Lotto in this country has been organized at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It brings together some 50 paintings, many of them from the provinces where Lotto produced them but others from museums in London, Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Bucharest and St. Petersburg. Called Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance , this exhibition is indeed a revelation. Many of the paintings are devoted to religious subjects, of course, but others-including several of the most compelling pictures in the exhibition-are secular portraits that are astounding in the depth of feeling they encompass. The Portrait of a Married Couple (1523-24), from the Hermitage Museum, for example, is at once a masterpiece of earthy realism, with the characters of the sitters clearly defined, and a moral allegory on the nature of marriage. The Portrait of a Young Man (circa 1530), from the Accademia in Venice, is similarly grave in its depiction of a figure who has apparently abandoned worldly pleasures for a life of study.

It is above all in the flamboyant Portrait of a Lady as Lucretia (circa 1533), from the National Gallery in London, that Lotto’s sheer virtuosity as a colorist makes itself felt as high pictorial drama. For these portraits, Lotto used a horizontal format that became something of a signature style in his portraits, allowing for elements of symbolism and allegory as well as dramatic gesture that might have been more constricted in the traditional vertical format.

It has been said of Lotto that he was even something of a portraitist in his religious paintings, for the lives of the saints were subjects of intense interest to him, and he was intent upon depicting them as living presences. Did he overdo it at times? Perhaps. The late Sydney Freedberg, himself a great scholar and connoisseur in the Berenson tradition, once characterized the opulent realism of the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, With Saints (1524) as an example of “inspired vulgarity.” And sometimes the sheer theatricality of the religious paintings makes them difficult to “read.” As Peter Humfrey writes of the Christ Carrying the Cross (1526), “It is not clear, for example, whether [Christ] is supposed to be stooping, kneeling, or lying.” And in that painting, too, the suffering head of Christ seems almost detached from the brilliant red cloak that adorns his body and contributes so much-the dominant note, in fact-to the intense emotion of the picture.

Even before we come to Lotto’s peculiar rendering of the Annunciation (circa 1534-35) in this exhibition, we come to understand why it was that the artist had such a difficult career, for his work rarely conformed to the canon of classical taste in his time. This Annunciation is, by Italian standards, a very strange account of its subject, a reminder of Lotto’s keen interest in German and Netherlandish painting. Once we understand that interest and its influence on Lotto’s painting-including his color-we can better understand why it was that he was denounced by a compatriot for “bad colors.” Lotto had found something in painting north of the Alps that was alien to accepted taste. This was yet another reason why he was reluctant to take Titian as a model, and paid a price for placing his own work at a considerable distance from that of his most celebrated contemporary.

If he was something of a misfit in his time, however, Lotto was nonetheless a painter of extraordinary powers, and the current exhibition of his work in Washington is an event that everyone with a serious interest in painting will want to see. I certainly hope to revisit this exhibition as soon as possible. It remains on view at the National Gallery in Washington through March 1, and will then travel to the Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti in Bergamo, Italy, (April 2 to June 28, 1998) and the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris (Oct. 12, 1998, to Jan. 11, 1999).

It should also be said on the occasion of this exhibition that it does much to vindicate the achievement of Bernard Berenson, whose career as a scholar and connoisseur of Italian painting has lately been subjected to some harsh criticism, mainly owing to the fortune that Berenson made as an adviser to dealers and collectors. It required a certain genius for Berenson to rediscover Lotto and rescue this undoubted master from the obscurity to which his work has been consigned by his immediate posterity, and it is largely because of that genius-the genius of an esthete-that Lotto has at last been given his due in this century. Whatever Berenson’s character flaws may have been, what do they matter compared to the magnitude of his accomplishment?

Obscure Venetian Misfit Deserves a Lotto Praise