Curator’s introduction | Lorenzo Lotto Portraits | National Gallery

Hello and welcome
to the National Gallery.
My name is Matthias Wivel.
I am the Curator of 16th-century
Italian Paintings here at the Gallery
and the co-curator
of ‘Lorenzo Lotto Portraits’.
I would also like to welcome
our virtual visitors
watching on the live stream,
thanks for tuning in.
This talk will be an overview
of Lotto’s career
seen through the perspective
of his portraits.
But before I start,
I just want to thank my co-curators
for this show.
As you may know, it is a collaboration
with the Museo del Prado in Madrid,
and was previously there.
The idea came from Miguel Falomir,
who is now the director of the Prado…
…and the intellectual backbone
of the exhibition
was Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo
from the University of Verona.
He is one of our foremost
Lotto specialists
and is working on a catalogue raisonné.
So, it’s very much an effort
between the three of us.
Oh, I don’t know what
that little yellow thing down there is.
That’s not intentional, anyway…
Lotto is a bit hard to get to grips with,
because he’s an artist
who moves around so much
and is so distinct as an artist
that he doesn’t belong to a specific
school or specific group of artists,
and that’s a challenge
for anybody who studies his work,
and I will try to ameliorate it a bit
by having these maps
occasionally through the talk,
with highlights on the places that
are important for this part of the talk.
You see, these rectangles
were not meant to be here,
but just highlights,
I don’t know what’s happened.
I should say, this is a portrait of Lotto
from Carlo Ridolfi’s
1648 biography of the artist,
‘Le maravaglie dell’arte’.
We don’t know whether this actually
is based on an authentic likeness,
but it’s the closest we get,
we assume that Ridolfi
was relying on something
that was known to be a portrait of Lotto,
but we don’t know the picture
and we don’t know.
There are various ideas as to other
portraits or self-portraits by him,
but we don’t know what he looked like,
this is the closest we get.
Lotto is a Venetian artist, initially,
and in a way primarily,
even though it doesn’t quite explain him.
He is born in Venice around 1480-1481,
and clearly trains there
as an artist, in Venice.
He learns the practice,
the Venetian practice of oil painting,
the sophisticated layering of oil
to create depth and richness of colour
from his teacher
and from other artists in Venice.
We think his teacher is Alvise Vivarini…
…a great artist in Venice at this time
and runs a dynastic family workshop there.
It would seem from studying Lotto’s style
that he studied with him,
but we don’t have any documentation.
One thing that does influence him
strongly at the beginning of his career,
and indeed any Venetian artist
of the time,
is the example of Antonello da Messina,
the Chilean artist who in the 1470s
spent some crucial years in Venice
and ushered in an approach,
a sort of luminous poetic approach
to painting and to oil painting,
not least in portraiture,
and that’s the juxtaposition
I’m showing you here
as a way of illustrating that.
The painting on the right
is the first painting
you see as you enter the exhibition.
And it is, I think, quite an
unforgettable image, very powerful,
this strange looking man with a big jaw
and these piercing,
bluish-green eyes meeting you.
It looks really like nothing else
in Lotto’s oeuvre,
and it’s actually
an uncertain attribution.
It’s just difficult to see
who else did it at this time.
It’s clearly indebted to Antonello,
this kind of very strong chiaroscuro
that you have
and the Venetian style of portraiture
where you have a frontally-posed sitter
on a fairly flat, plain background
with a parapet in front.
It’s a very 15th-century style,
and the clothes you see
are the clothing of a Venetian gentleman
in the latter 15th century.
The reason we think it’s Lotto is because
it has this very lyrical aspect to it,
which you don’t find in his other art,
it sort of reminds you
a little bit of Giorgione,
who was still very young at this point
and who becomes a very important artist
in the first decade of the 16th century,
who has this lyrical mysterious approach
to both portraiture
and narrative painting.
There’s some of that, but there’s
still more of a physical presence here
than is usual with painters at this time,
the attention to detailing in the hair
and the curls of the hair and so on.
And there are various other
sort of circumstantial reasons
for believing that it is painted by Lotto
that I won’t go into here.
It’s a beautiful image
and I encourage you to think about
how it might relate
to everything else in the exhibition.
Because Lotto’s style does change a lot.
This painting would be late 1490s,
around 1500,
probably a bit earlier actually,
and probably painted in Treviso
where we know Lotto was working
as an independent master in 1503,
and there’s documentation
of a “master Lorenzo painter”
in 1498 in Treviso.
Treviso is just north of Venice,
it’s part of the Venetian dominion.
I can go back to the map, here,
and it’s on the trade route through
the Dolomites and the Alps with Germany,
so there’s a strong German presence,
German merchants,
but also a colony of German artists
documented in Treviso at this time.
It’s definitely something that influences
Lotto, which I’ll get to in a minute.
In the meantime, I’ll just point
to another important Venetian influence.
On the right,
Lotto’s first great altarpiece,
painted in Treviso
in the Church of Santa Cristina,
and you see how the model
is very close indeed
to Giovanni Bellini’s late masterpiece,
the San Zaccaria altarpiece in Venice.
The model is the same, the way
that you have an architectural surround
that continues into… virtually into
the physical space of the viewer,
who will be looking at it here.
You can see it, here’s the physical
architectural frame of the painting,
and it continues over here
into the painting.
You see the types of Saints
around the Virgin and Child,
very similar in conception.
The rendering, however, is different,
and this is where
the Germanic influence comes in.
Where Bellini at this time,
potentially influenced or at least
sensing where painting is going,
it’s related to what Giorgione
is also doing at this time,
but I think Bellini is influencing
Giorgione rather than the way around.
It’s said that Bellini
is picking up on Giorgione,
but I think Bellini is coming up
with some of this himself.
It’s a soft-focused,
atmospheric rendering,
both of landscape and the figures.
You get this sense
of the warmth of the sun
and the warmth of the tiles
with the bare feet and the tiles
and so on.
He creates this perfect moment
for contemplation for the viewer
by offering a beautiful summer day,
this is something
that he does better than anybody.
And this is more hard-edged,
what Lotto is doing,
it’s the same types of figures,
but it’s crisper and harder in shape,
it doesn’t quite have that softness.
That is because of the German influence
I was talking about,
it’s something that Lotto internalises
in his early years
and it really stays with him
throughout his career.
We see here an early devotional picture,
around 1506,
and then a similar formatted picture
by Albrecht Dürer,
who famously comes to Venice in 1505
and paints a very important altarpiece,
the ‘Madonna of the Rose Garden’
which is now in Prague,
it influences everybody,
they flock around this painting,
and indeed anything he does is a great
example for Venetian artists at this time.
Lotto is in Treviso,
he might have met Dürer,
but he’s already keyed into
this this German style,
this more exacting, one might say,
objective, naturalistic style,
where you try closely to depict what you
see and maybe even exaggerate it a bit.
You see in Durer,
it’s almost caricatural in places,
and it’s a very German approach to things,
the slight overtones of the grotesque
and maybe the ugly,
and you see that also here, I think,
in the way Lotto
is painting his saints here.
Lotto is not particularly interested
in the grotesque,
but he does integrate
this objectivism,
or whatever you want to call it,
this approach to what he sees
and the rendering of detail into his art.
And you see that already
in his portraiture in Treviso,
such as the Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi,
a very important early portrait by Lotto.
Similarly to the first picture we saw,
the first portrait we saw by him,
he is posed more less frontally,
I mean he is turning his head,
but quite flatly
against a uniform background,
this very Venetian arrangement.
However, he’s rendered
literally warts and all.
You see the warts on his cheeks here
and on his forehead,
his face is really naturalistic.
And there’s a real force
in the way he looks at us.
Much different from the young man,
who had that wistful dreamy
Giorgionesque, maybe, poetic tenor.
This is serious confrontation
with a sitter,
in a way intimate,
but certainly he’s very present,
and this is something Lotto excels at.
Then you have the rendering of details,
his signet ring, the little scroll he has.
Bernardo de’ Rossi
was an important ecclesiastical
but also political figure in Treviso,
he was the Bishop of the city.
He was hated by…
certain political factions.
In fact, there is this theory
that this scroll
pertains to a court case he successfully
pursued against political rivals
who recently had tried
to have him assassinated.
He survived that, then pursued
a court case against them afterwards,
and this is shortly before
this painting was made.
He was a patron of Lotto’s,
he surrounded himself with poets,
painters, humanists of all stripes.
Humanism is the study of all knowledge
that doesn’t directly emerge
from the Church and from religion.
So, the attentions of classical antiquity
to classical poetry
and the whole new literature and art
that’s coming up,
and in science, it’s all of these things,
and this new knowledge is becoming…
…a force to be reckoned with
in the class of people
that Lotto surrounds himself with
or Lotto attaches himself to in Treviso.
So, a really good illustration of that
is this painting on the left,
which is the cover of that,
of the portrait.
Most portraits, if they were not
official or semi-official state portraits
that would be seen in public,
were quite private objects,
slightly analogous to family photos
that we keep in albums today
or on our hard drives more increasingly
and can’t find anymore and so on,
but private objects
that you show to people
in a more intimate way,
friends, family members and so on,
and that’s the same here, therefore most
portraits were covered up in some way,
often with a cover,
a painted cover sometimes.
We don’t know a whole lot about
these covers because so few survive,
but we know that
they were used for most portraits
from inventories and so on.
And this we know belonged to that,
and we have, indeed, the same escutcheon,
the family arms
that are also here and here.
So, what’s going on here? This is
a complicated, very intellectual image,
but the basic message is clear,
it’s a juxtaposition of something bad
and something good,
vice and virtue.
On the right, we have a satyr
embodying the beastly, old,
animal nature of man,
drunk clearly, looking into this lure
probably for wine or something,
spilling milk literally into the grass
and also wine over here.
Behind him is a ship
that sinks in a storm,
and the tree that separates
the composition
is blighted and dead on the right side.
On the left side,
there’s a new shoot, a fresh shoot,
and here’s a small child,
a little boy, nude…
…clambering in the dirt,
looking and finding
different objects here.
Objects of music
the musical instruments, books,
and objects for measuring things,
and he picks up a compass.
He embodies the searching human soul,
the dawning of enlightenment
of the human soul.
The compass that he picks up
is, of course,
used for geometry
and geometrical calculation,
and it is an object that is associated
with discovering the order
of the universe,
of the cosmos, of nature and so on.
And then in the back, on the other side
of these sharp, forbidding rocks,
we see a verdant green mountain,
a little boy, probably the same boy but
now has sprouted wings all over his body,
and is ascending into
this cloud-covered mountaintop
from which light emerges,
that’s the light of enlightenment.
This pertains directly
to a contemporary treatise
on the appetites of the human soul
that was written
by an associate of de’ Rossi’s.
So, it’s an illustration of theory,
of theory and from a treatise
at this time.
It’s an allegory of virtue and vice
but it’s a very specific one,
very intellectual, something that only
associates of de’ Rossi would understand.
But this is what
he wanted to be associated with,
this is what he aspires towards
and that’s often the role of these covers.
If they’re decorated,
they illustrate the aspirations
or somehow the identity of the sitter,
or what the sitter wants to be thought of,
how he wants to be thought of.
So, one last thing about this,
it’s very precisely painted,
as you can see, the little buttons
are lined up like peas in a pod here,
the drapery folds are very precise,
quite angular,
everything’s extremely neat and done
with sort of crystalline precision,
and then beautifully there’s a
sliver of blue sky up here at the top,
which you’d be forgiven for not noticing,
because it has a frame and it’s impossible
to light it to see that blue bit,
it’s in shadow, but you can look for it.
Then he paints
an important painting in Asolo,
also part of the Venetian dominion,
and I like these drone shots we have
so I’m going those to show you.
You see there, this is the town of Asolo
sat on the top of a hill.
This is the first thing you see
as you come into the exhibition.
It’s an altarpiece we don’t know
the exact circumstances of its commission,
but it’s painted with this great level
of precision that I was talking about,
not least in the botanical detail
of all these plants,
and then there’s a great landscape
with, as I said,
Asolo appearing as the city on a hill
like the heavenly Jerusalem here,
and then the Dolomites in the background,
the landscape surrounding Asolo,
like we just saw a little bit of,
and typical alpine buildings
of Italian style at this time.
That landscape owes something to Bellini
but also to Dürer
and other German artists
and their landscape studies of the Alps.
Interestingly here,
it’s a very familiar subject,
the Virgin surrounded by two saints
that are important to the commission,
however, if you look at the Virgin
she looks unusual.
She is usually presented
as young and beautiful.
Here, we have a middle-aged woman,
and it’s almost as if these angels
are struggling to keep her aloft,
one of them is holding his arm…
the kind of thing that Lotto loves,
there’s a lot of humour in his painting,
and they’re very concrete these babies
that are helping her hover up there.
There’s heavenly light emerging from this
cloud cover that she’s painted on top of,
it is the Virgin in Glory, maybe
the resurrected Virgin of the Assumption,
although we don’t have her tomb here
which you usually have in the Assumption,
or it’s the Virgin of the Immaculate
Conception, which is more likely.
The Immaculate Conception
was the whole question
of how the Virgin could be without sin
if she was born of human parents,
like Christ is without sin
because he’s divine,
but she was born of human parents
and yet is without sin,
and it’s a very difficult and
controversial doctrine in the Church
that has various proposals
as to how it’s possible.
And it’s illustrated by a hovering Virgin,
often on a crescent moon,
you see that especially later,
but I think that’s…
that’s what’s going on here.
But why is she middle-aged?
She looks like this woman. It’s a portrait
and that’s why it’s in the exhibition.
We believe it’s a portrait,
it’s not just a random type,
but actually this woman, Caterina Cornaro,
who was a noble woman
who had been deposed as Queen of Cyprus
by the Venetian government.
Venice had dominion in the Mediterranean,
also of Cyprus at this point.
And she was given reign of Asolo,
the region around Asolo as well,
also surrounded herself with scientists,
humanists, poets and painters and so on,
and knew de’ Rossi, and Lotto may have
gotten this commission through de’ Rossi.
and we think it’s a very similar
physiognomy, so it’s probably her.
She’d also built a myth around herself
about her immaculacy,
she lived in celibacy and identified with
the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception,
so it makes sense that she would
show herself as the Virgin,
even though it seems
presumptuous to us today
and indeed later in the century
that would be completely unheard of,
for someone show themselves as the Virgin,
but this is a progressive time in Italy
in terms of ideas,
in terms of theology and so on,
and these kinds of things
happen at this time.
Then Lotto gets an invitation to come
to Recanati in the region of the Marche.
His fame is spreading,
he’s described in a document of the time
as “pictor celeberrimus”
which means famous painter,
so he’s clearly recognised
as a major talent
an emerging talent,
and there’s demand for him.
He comes to Recanati
and he paints his breakthrough work,
his international,
outside Venice or breakthrough work,
which is this fantastic polyptych which
is still in Recanati in the Museo Civico.
It’s a tour de force in precision,
in detail, in clarity,
and in emotional engagement,
which I’ll show you,
I just want to briefly mention the debt
that it shows to Alvise Vivarini,
his putative master.
You see that’s the same kind
of hard-edged clarity of form, I think,
in the two and obviously
the architecture and so on.
It’s similar to something
Vivarini would do,
so this is in part why we believe
he was his master.
Here I just have one detail
of how just how beautiful it is,
the attention he pays to objects
and to clothing
and drapery and books, all these things,
absolutely exquisitely painted,
very disciplined.
This is the cimasa,
which is the top part of the altarpiece.
It’s a dead Christ supported by an angel
with Mary Magdalene and the Virgin here
and then Joseph of Arimathea
or Nicodemus behind him.
And I think what this tells us is
about Lotto’s emotional engagements,
an intensely emotional picture,
and really in all of his work
you feel his emotional engagement,
he’s very emotionally available
as an artist
and is present in his painting, his own
emotion is present there, very much.
I think this helps us understand it,
and then his graphic sensibility,
the interplay of hands here,
of different hues,
the different hues of skin,
with Christ’s pallid flesh here,
the pale skin of Mary Magdalene
and then the more sunburned
of the male figure behind,
and the greens, the reds,
the attention to fabrics here,
it’s just so…
…it’s painted
with such a sense of design
that it’s really quite remarkable,
and it’s something
that very interestingly changes,
changes quite a lot in the years that come
because Lotto is called to Rome.
I don’t have a wonderful video of Rome
so you’ll have to do with this image,
but in Rome he is maybe
through de’ Rossi, we don’t know,
but he comes to Rome and he very quickly
ends up working for Julius II, the Pope,
the patron of Bramante,
Michelangelo and Raphael,
and he works indeed with Raphael,
in the Stanza della Segnatura
in the Papal Apartments,
Raphael’s most famous work, which
of course has the School of Athens here.
We don’t know exactly what he does there,
he paints something in there.
It may have all been painted over, lost
and painted over by Raphael in the studio,
or it may still be there,
there’s some theory
that he painted
the Justinian delivering the Pandects,
which is on the left
of the jurisprudence walls.
It’s differently painted
from that and that,
which is Raphael, almost entirely Raphael,
very beautifully painted by Raphael.
This is a more layered approach
to fresco painting
which is not as integrated
and as nuanced as this,
and there’s some theory that this is Lotto
executing a design by Raphael.
I don’t want to get into it,
it’s a very complicated issue
and it’s highly controversial,
but it’s possible.
We don’t know how long
he remains in Rome for,
but it profoundly affects him.
His style changes completely,
and you can see that in this painting,
which is painted in 1511 for Recanati,
still in the Museo Civico next to this,
which is helpful if you visit Recanati,
which I recommend,
because you can see
this is before Rome and after Rome,
it’s so different,
the discipline and the precision of this
has given way
to a disordered, discombobulated,
strangely unsettled,
a more monumental approach
to figure, to composition,
of course influenced by Raphael
but also probably other artists,
it’s a totally different…
he just cannot go back after having seen
what’s happening in Rome
and having worked very close to Raphael.
He changes his style
and there’s discussion among scholars
whether it was actually stifling to him
to be working with Raphael,
and that he had to leave Rome because
he couldn’t keep up with the competition,
Raphael and Michelangelo
next door in the Sistine Chapel,
he was painting the ceiling at that time.
Or whether it actually liberates
something in Lotto,
it liberates him and takes him
away from this, which is essentially
a 15th-century model,
even though he’s updating it to the
new century, it’s still 15th-century,
where this is very much High Renaissance,
16th-century dynamism,
and animation and so on,
a very bizarre painting.
There is something odd about Lotto,
as you may have gathered,
looking at the Asolo altarpiece and so on.
Lotto next moves to Bergamo, here,
and he stays there for about a decade.
He’s initially attracted there
to paint an altarpiece.
It’s on the edge of the Venetian dominion,
and I have some shots of it here for you.
Bergamo is an important trade centre
on the western edge
of the Venetian dominion.
It’s not a big city, but it’s
an important city, an important size,
with a strong local community.
And he likes it so much there
that he decides to stay,
but the initial impetus is this,
this is an altarpiece
that is commissioned for Church,
but with the authority
of the city of Bergamo behind it,
to commemorate the fact that Bergamo
has come back to Venetian rule
after a few years
of being ruled over by the French.
So, it’s a political manifestation
as well as a religious one.
It’s a huge altarpiece,
eight meters tall, it’s enormous,
and you see it accommodates
13 figures in it.
It’s the typical “sacra conversazione”
with Madonna and Child
surrounded by saints,
but Lotto brings
his specific weirdness to it.
It’s a very lucrative commission too
and this is why, I think,
he’s attracted to it,
they’re paying a lot of money for this.
He wins the competition for it
and paints it,
and that settles it for him,
he’s going to stay in Bergamo.
I’ll just say a little bit about it,
you see…
it has the saints here, this receding
strange darkness behind the Virgin,
quite unusual,
the things he comes up with,
little visual devices like that,
this is empty space behind the Virgin
with the columns here
receding into the darkness.
It’s very evocative and gives it
a three-dimensionality to it.
Lotto has been naughty and started
painting this before they were ready.
The little angels, they’re busy
still organising this drapery here,
they’re not done yet, they’re not ready.
The same with the angels up here,
they’re still organising the hangings
and the flower arrangements and so on,
the garlands.
They’re still discussing
and arguing over it,
and he’s unwrapping
a bouquet of flowers maybe
but they’re not ready
and he’s just started painting them!
This is very typical and quite wonderful,
you’ll find this in all Lotto’s
large-scale work of this period.
This painting is quite typical of his
sensitivity to his sitters and empathy.
I talked about emotional engagement,
it comes out in a portrait like this.
It’s a double portrait
of an important physician,
Giovanni Agostino della Torre,
who’s seated in front,
a medical doctor trained
at the University of Padua,
an important citizen of Bergamo.
He is sitting in a chair with a volume
of the antique physicist,
the classical physicist Galen,
whose work was still the model
for medical doctors at this time,
although that was changing quite
dramatically in subsequent years.
He has letters here identifying him,
letters to him,
he has prescriptions over here
written from this stained inkwell,
and other books related
to his profession here
with title marks sticking out,
this is often how books were stored,
with the title written on pieces of paper
stuck in between them,
they were not lined up on shelves
like we do.
Behind him is his son, Nicolò della Torre,
who ran the family business which traded
in minerals, various minerals and so on,
he was one of the richest men in Bergamo.
He seems a little uncomfortably inserted,
he’s a bit bigger in scale,
and it’s unclear how he occupies
that quite shallow space
behind Giovanni Agostino,
and this has led scholars to speculate
that he’s inserted later,
it wasn’t the intention
to have him there from the beginning.
And I think that’s probably right,
although it would have happened
soon after
because if you look
at cross-sections of the paint,
there’s no indication that there was a
layer of varnish or dirt between the two,
it would have had to been painted
soon after the rest.
What I think happened
and what helps us understand the portrait
is that, as you can see,
Giovanni Agostino here looks sickly,
he’s old and he’s not necessarily
in peak health,
and indeed he died
the following year, 1516.
That may have been the occasion
for the portrait, that he was dying,
and the family wanted a portrait of him.
Maybe even his son was the patron,
maybe he paid for it,
and wanted to paint his father
because he was dying.
And then possibly,
this is just my speculation,
but possibly he had added his own portrait
to it after his father’s death
to show the familial bond between them,
the pride in their common heritage
and what they had built in Bergamo.
There’s a real intimacy
in this portrait between the two of them
and how they represent themselves
as a family, as two generations.
I should note down here, a little fly
has landed on this handkerchief,
that’s like a very sort of virtuosic,
visual trick
that still has people fooled today.
This is one of the pictures that we glaze
in the permanent display.
Generally we don’t glaze our pictures
because they’re easier to appreciate,
but because people tend
to want to touch that fly,
we put glass on it
to protect the painting.
The fly, however,
at the same time, of course,
is a symbol of disease
and ultimately death
and I think what Lotto is signifying here
is that death is present or disease.
And he liked symbols like that,
as we’ll get to see,
not least in this picture
of Lucina Brembati,
an aristocratic woman in Bergamo,
he also painted her husband,
and she’s here in all her finery,
a beautifully rendered dress
with these scallop shells
and these pearls and golden chain
with a very strange pendant on here,
a weasel stole, and this capigliari,
which is a headpiece that was fashionable
in northern Italy for about ten years,
because the Marchioness of Mantua,
Isabella d’Este, wore one.
She had been smitten with syphilis
from her philandering husband
and was losing her hair,
so she came up with this hairpiece
to hide her bald spots
and it became fashion,
so all ladies of a certain standing
would be wearing these,
you’ll see them
in many of Lotto’s pictures.
It was about 10 to 15 years of fashion.
And Lotto was extremely attentive
to fashion and to clothing
and what it says about the sitter
and their self-conception,
more so, I think, than most artists,
and it comes out also
because he renders it so precisely.
Interestingly, Lucina here
is rendered with a nocturnal landscape
behind her, at night.
That is something pioneered by Giorgione
and various other artists in Venice,
it’s a Venetian thing this nocturnal,
the nocturn,
it’s quite fashionable at the time
but it’s rare to see in portraits.
The reason he’s doing it
is because he wants the moon in there,
because the moon helps identify her.
You see the C I written in the moon here.
Moon in Italian is “luna”,
and if you put C I inside Luna,
it’s Lucina and that’s her name,
and then her family crest
is on the ring down here,
she’s Lucina Brembati,
that’s how we found out…
one of my predecessors found out
that it’s her or identified her.
There are various symbolic interpretations
of the weasel stole and so on,
you can read about those in the catalogue,
some are creative and compelling.
The thing about Lotto,
you never know how far to take
your interpretations of the symbology
because he really is somebody
who likes that kind of thing.
Here, similarly,
it’s a couple getting married.
It’s Marsilio Cassotti, who comes from
an important merchant family,
and he’s marrying up into a noble family,
Faustina here is his bride,
she’s from a noble family
and he’s marrying into money and prestige.
He’s about to place the ring on her finger
she’s wearing a red dress,
which is a wedding dress,
this is how wedding dresses looked,
and her jewellery is rendered
with utmost attention,
and this little cameo she has here,
we have a similar cameo in the exhibition,
it shows the Roman Empress
Faustina the Elder,
who was regarded as a virtuous
and strong wife traditionally,
so it ties into her self-conception
and how she liked to be thought of,
as she’s also wearing this capigliari,
I forgot to mention, it’s woven from
a combination of wool and human hair,
it’s a really strange accoutrement.
But anyway, so again
we have fashion and so on,
but I think what’s interesting first
as symbology, it’s very funny,
it’s Cupid, the god of love, yoking
them together like they were cattle,
Lotto enjoys that kind of thing,
it’s not an unprecedented iconography
but it’s kind of odd,
it’s not something you see a lot,
they’re going to be yoked together.
See the expression,
she seems very sincere,
she looks out on us, she’s posing
for a photograph, so to speak.
He’s kind of cocky, a bit smug,
and maybe because he’s really
made it here, he’s getting married,
I don’t know, this is my interpretation,
or maybe not even that.
But what’s interesting is that Lotto
is telling us a story of these people,
by their facial expression,
their gestures,
that he’s trying to get behind
what’s happening between them,
that there’s a story to their union,
and it’s not just a bland representation
of them as exemplars of their class,
there is something going on,
and Cupid is looking askew at Marsilio.
Maybe he’s in on the joke
that this is about money
or he’s maybe looking to admonish him,
that he has to remember
to take this seriously
and not be so superficial about it,
maybe something else, it’s up to anybody
to interpret that facial expression,
but something is going on,
and this is the kind of psychology
that’s so interesting in Lotto.
Lotto gets much work.
He becomes the dominant painter
in Bergamo,
and he works for both private clients
and for the Church and so on.
This is a gloriously bizarre
fresco decoration of a small oratory,
this building here outside Bergamo
in Trescore Balneario.
I’ll just show you the images,
I won’t talk about it at length
because it’s very complicated,
but you see how weird it is.
It’s Christ as a tree
with branches coming out
holding roundels of prophets,
and there’s an important story
of the saints from the Golden Legend,
the story gets told across
the surface of the painting here,
very strange.
This is another
very important commission, I think,
key to understanding Lotto if one
wants to go further is this commission,
which is for the choir of Santa Maggiore,
the choir up here.
He designs the intarsia panels
where the monks sit,
the congregation, yes.
And it’s narrative scenes
with these covers,
with covers that have sort
of hermetic symbology,
hieroglyphics, which was
something nobody understood,
people knew it existed,
it was fascinating,
nobody could read them
and it was in Egypt,
so it was limited what came to Italy,
but there was great interest in it,
Lotto was there with the most interested.
Weird symbols that pertain to the
religious message of the narrative scenes,
but also incorporates
all this humanist knowledge
that is not something
you see in religious scenes.
We have one of his model drawings for it,
this is a drawing that has
little annotations you see,
I can’t see it from here, they’re little,
so you see here he’s writing
what the different elements are
and what colours they should be
because somebody else would cut it in wood
and do these wood inlays, intarsia.
This is Judith and Holofernes,
and it’s just to indicate
the level of invention he’s at
in terms of narrative scenes.
There’s a lot going on here and it is odd.
You see actually people peeing up here,
there’s a lot sort of profane detail,
a lot of people sleeping,
he’s very good at depicting that.
Here you see some surface details,
a wonderful differentiation of textures
for the different kinds of woods
and surface treatment,
creating depth, colour,
nuance, shadow and so on.
They’re really beautiful,
and it’s something that he worked on
for seven or eight years
into his next move which is to Venice.
So, at some point he decides,
OK, I’ve gotten where I can with Bergamo
now I’ve got to move back to Venice,
the most cosmopolitan city in Europe,
where I can surely attract
a more important clientele,
a richer and more diverse clientele.
So, he moves back to his city of birth
and stays there for about eight years.
He still has that intarsia commission
and works on that for a number of years
and falls out with the patrons
and has a lot of controversies over that,
but he works in Venice and in Venice,
which you see here, beautifully,
he somehow has to compete
with the upper echelon of patronage
and artists, notably Titian.
He does get commissions, largely
religious commissions such as this one,
showing Saint Nicholas in the cloud
surrounded by saints,
with a beautiful landscape, also quite
Germanic in some ways at the bottom,
but he doesn’t get many of them,
…this guy is around,
not the guy painted
but the guy who painted it, Titian.
Titian is ten years younger than Lotto,
eight to ten years younger than Lotto,
and when he left Venice
he was but a youth,
he hadn’t come into his own as an artist,
but at this time
he’s the dominant artist in Venice
and he’s becoming the most famous artist
in Italy except for Michelangelo.
It’s that kind of level of stature.
And he paints for dukes and princes
for the Pope
and the Holy Roman Emperor.
He’s working at the highest level
in terms of class, social class.
He’s obviously a great portraitist,
very influential,
and you see when Titian paints a portrait
it’s also very psychologically astute,
just like Lotto,
but he makes his sitters beautiful,
he changes, he idealises them,
and he kind of monumentalises them,
he makes them bigger and larger than life,
and elevates their personalities
into some more timeless fear.
And Lotto takes on some of that,
you see in his most famous portrait
and probably his most famous artwork,
the Odoni portrait,
which is a centrepiece in the exhibition,
he has that amplitude, that monumentality
that Titian has in his portraits.
Lotto was competing
for commissions with Titian
and it’s really in portraiture, I think,
where he goes the furthest
and pushes him to innovation.
And Odoni is a collector of antiquities,
he’s an official
in the Venetian administration
and has an important tax office,
the import of wine,
which makes him very rich
because he gets tax proceeds from that.
So he collects antiquities,
he also collects contemporary art
by all the great artists of the time,
including Titian, Giorgione,
he has Palma Vecchio, all these artists,
but he asked Lotto to paint his portrait,
probably because he knows
Lotto is going to do a great job,
and he does one of the emblematic
portraits of the Renaissance here.
Odoni is surrounded by antique sculpture,
antique coins,
a book which may also contain
a classic text,
and it seems a very assertive portrait,
that he’s showing off his great collection
and his greatness in general.
It’s also earnest, there’s an earnestness
to the way that he looks at us,
with his soft beard and
there’s a kind air to him, I think, too.
And he offers us
to look at this Artemisian…
this Ephesian Artemis statuette
he has in his hand,
while his other hand is on his heart
fingering a crucifix.
And you’ll see in the exhibition,
we have actually found…
we have borrowed some of the sculpture
that is in the portrait.
This statue either of a man or a woman,
said to be Venus,
interpreted by Lotto as a woman, I think,
is the actual one that he painted,
and it was in a famous collection
in Padua.
The bust of Hadrian
which was in the Grimani collection,
the most important collection
of antiquities in Venice.
Remember, Venice didn’t have
classical ruins or that kind of past,
so antiquities were few and far between,
so any antiquities in the collections
were closely studied by artists
and other people who were interested,
and this was famous amongst artists,
and that’s here.
We know that Odoni actually owned
a plaster cast of that,
so that’s maybe
the only object in the portrait
that he actually owned,
everything else comes from elsewhere,
these are things from the Vatican.
But typically for Lotto…
I mean this is Hadrian,
he’s one of the most famous
and admired of the Roman emperors
and he peeks out over the table
with a tablecloth over his head,
he looks very much alive
like he’s crawling out under the table,
this is very Lotto, he can’t
stay serious about this kind of thing.
Also over here,
we have Venus pulling on her sandals
and resting, her foot is broken,
there’s a basin here
and little Hercules is peeing into it.
So, he undercuts the seriousness
in a way and makes it informal.
Then, indeed, what is the significance
of this statuette that he’s handing us?
This is similar to one we have
in the exhibition,
it’s not the one that is actually here,
but it’s the kind of statuette,
and it’s a fairly recent discovery,
around 1500,
these Ephesian Artemis,
which is a fertility goddess,
but at the time
it’s not connected with fertility
despite the many, many breasts,
many, many full breasts that she has.
She is connected with natural philosophy
and she’s sort of the spirit of nature.
And what Odoni
is probably trying to show us
is the union, in his aspirations
and intellectual aspirations,
between natural philosophy
and Christianity.
That’s one way
of interpreting this gesture,
that he’s wants to emphasise that,
and so the whole picture becomes
about his philosophy of life in a way
and understanding of himself.
I’ve got to say something about this too,
it’s another landscape format portrait,
not portrait format but landscape.
We saw how Lotto
had been painting double portraits
and you see that in exhibition even more
in landscape format in Bergamo,
that’s traditional
for a marriage portrait,
you’ll have a landscape format
to accommodate the two sitters.
Lotto then starts using that
for single sitters
and that gives him more space to include
elements like the sculptures around Odoni,
and it gives him space to let
the figure really assert him or herself,
and this is his most assertive portrait,
his most heroic portrait,
and it’s of a woman, I think that’s very
important and tells us a lot about Lotto.
She is very finely dressed,
she’s probably an aristocrat of some sort.
Probably her name is Lucretia
because she’s showing herself
as the Roman heroin Lucretia…
…who is illustrated on this drawing
stabbing herself to death
after having been raped, not being able
to live with the dishonour of that.
And down here a quote from Lucretia
from the classical sources,
saying: “Let no unchaste woman
claim my example.”
So, what this woman is trying to show
is that she adheres to the ideals
of Lucretia, Lucretia is a role model,
she is prepared to die for her,
die for her honour,
and is faithful and virtuous.
So, this is a woman who is conforming to
very gender-normative ideals at the time,
a very masculine,
a male-dominated social norm
that a wife has to be faithful
and virtuous and so on,
and she has to be ready to die
for that ideal.
However, when you look
at what’s going on,
she’s not your prim buttoned-up,
nice-height housewife, is she?
I mean, she’s very ostentatiously dressed.
Her marriage chain,
which is a marital chain,
is stuffed into her bodice,
not around her neck.
Her veil is pulled behind her head
and doesn’t cover her bosom,
and she’s quite seductive,
and she’s alone,
her husband is not there,
the chair is empty,
and somebody
has brought her flowers, maybe,
we don’t know what this wallflower means,
but there’s a seductiveness to it,
and she meets our eyes.
However, she’s not there as eye candy,
she’s not there to appeal
to the male gaze, so to speak,
she’s returning our gaze, and she’s
asserting herself and her identity
and her autonomy as a person,
and I think that’s extremely interesting.
We don’t know the story
behind this picture,
there are various theories
but we really don’t know.
But Lotto is painting a woman
in a way that you see nobody do
at this time.
It’s very unusual,
it’s unparalleled, I think.
It’s one of the most remarkable
portraits of this period.
What it reminds me of is Manet’s
very famous portrait of ‘Olympia’,
the prostitute
who is lying on her bed nude,
but fully in control of who she is
and looking at us
with a similarly piercing glance,
that’s the parallel I would draw,
to Manet.
It’s really quite unusual
and, I think, proto-feminist in a way,
and shows us Lotto’s interest
in his subjects
and his nuanced understanding of them.
So, Lotto has some difficulty
making it in Venice,
not least because of Titian,
it’s just difficult that his style…
it’s too odd for this
cosmopolitan audience
and also feels a bit old-fashioned too,
I think, to many of them.
So, he starts looking for work elsewhere,
and the last 20-odd years of his career
he travels almost constantly,
seeking out patronage
in increasingly remote locations.
Treviso, where he already has a base
because he used to live there,
a little bit in Bergamo, but primarily
in the region of the Marche down here,
and very small towns
where he paints altarpieces and so on.
And it’s a period of great difficulty,
increasing difficulty for him.
He is struggling financially,
he is alone, he never marries,
he never has children,
he is an irrational
temperamental individual
who falls out with his patrons and
landlords and has to move all the time,
and even his family,
he often stays with relatives,
and he falls out with them.
So, he’s not an easy person to be with
or to have work for you.
And the reason we know all this
is because the last part of his career,
for about almost 20 years,
he keeps an account book,
he probably also did earlier
but we don’t have that,
where he lists all his expenses
and it becomes, if you read
between the lines, a kind of diary
about the people he meets
and his relationships with them
and also he edits his will several times
and we have two out of
at least three wills he completed,
where he’s lamenting his misfortune
and so on.
So, we get a real sense
of his state of mind
and how it deteriorates and how he feels
what we would describe as depressed,
he’s clinically depressed.
It’s difficult to diagnose somebody
who lived 500 years ago,
but that seems to be the case
and what’s going on with him,
and indeed, as we’ll see,
it manifests in his art.
We’re happy this is in the exhibition,
his last great commission in Venice,
and it’s commissioned by the confraternity
at Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the city.
It’s the most important
Dominican church in the city
and Lotto has very close relationships
with the confraternity there.
He knows them, he’s lodged
with them on several occasions,
and he’s obtained permission
to be buried there,
not necessarily with the friars,
but with the poor because
they have a cemetery for the poor,
amongst the lowest level.
And as part of obtaining this permission,
he paints this for them.
A strange altarpiece still in the church,
it’s come to the exhibition,
in the exhibition it’s low to the ground
because we don’t have
the vertical space to fully represent it,
but we have at least put a frame around it
to give a sense of its original setting.
It illustrates a very strange…
it’s a very strange composition,
and it illustrates a specific treatise
by Saint Antoninus of Florence,
who was Bishop of Florence
in the early 15th century
and was since sainted,
and had not been the subject of any
altarpieces, he’s a fairly obscure saint.
He was important
to the Dominicans, obviously.
He wrote a treatise
about helping the poor,
he was very invested in that
as a mission of the Church,
and had a system for assessing
how much the deserving poor,
to what extent
alms should be distributed to poor people,
and how you assess their supplications.
You see poor people come in
handing their supplications to the deacon,
who then hands it over to the canon,
who’s taking money out of a purse,
giving it to them.
Antoninus up here
is receiving instruction from the angels,
so we could be sure that his judgment
who deserves what is going to be just,
and Lotto paints a sort of a vision,
it’s a sort of bureaucratic scene,
but it’s a heavenly vision
at the same time
with a red curtain being drawn
apart by angels, it’s deeply bizarre,
with a sort of Garden of Eden-type
closed garden behind them.
Usually it’s the Virgin who sits here,
but now it’s Saint Antoninus,
also kind of unusual,
and we have these beautiful rugs here,
Anatolian rugs.
I’ll say quickly, clearly
they are portraits in this altarpiece,
which is why we have it here,
probably members of the congregation,
we don’t know who they are.
This may have been
the prior of the congregation.
But we have these beautiful rugs in front,
and in large parts of Europe
these are known as Lotto rugs,
he painted them so much,
sometimes alternatively Holbein carpets,
you’ll see one in ‘The Ambassadors’.
These were luxury objects imported
from Asia Minor, what is now Turkey,
and from Western Anatolia,
and you would see them in fine homes
but also in churches,
and in churches,
in religious conversations
they become symbolic of the Garden of Eden
often with the Virgin’s feet
resting on them,
of course, the designs are so beautiful
that they attracted painters
and painters would depict them
and collectors would buy them.
And we luckily have one of these
in the exhibition,
a Lotto exhibition with objects
without a Lotto carpet
would not be a proper Lotto exhibition.
The most interesting thing about this
painting, I think, however, is the poor,
his portrayal of the poor,
we know that Lotto painted
or paid poor people to sit for him,
so these are actual portraits
of poor Venetians.
And that is almost, I think, unheard of.
Others might have paid poor people
to sit but as types,
he wants their likenesses
and wants to insert their likeness
into an altarpiece
in an important church, very unusual,
and it shows, again, his empathy and
his feeling of allegiance with the poor.
He himself was becoming poor at this time.
And there’s indeed a theory
that this is a self-portrait.
You can read about it in the catalogue.
I’m not sure I believe in it,
but it’s possible.
It certainly shows his sympathy
for that class of people.
And you see many
different types of people,
formally aristocratic people with veils
and so on and still in their fine clothes,
but now destitute.
You see really destitute people,
a little girl with a stick here,
maybe leading a blind person.
We don’t really know, but the level
of detail is quite fascinating,
and because the painting
is sitting so low in our display
you really see this part of it, that’s one
advantage of not having a lot of space.
As I said, he’s depressed at this time,
and you see it in his paintings.
Lotto’s portraiture, in general,
is a portraiture
of what one could describe
as the emerging middle class,
it was not described
as the middle class at this time,
or what we also understand
as the bourgeoisie,
again, that’s an anachronistic term,
not how they were described at this time,
but that’s the class
that he really paints.
He doesn’t paints princes,
popes and emperors like Titian,
he paints the class that would come
to dominate European society and history,
the new class that had
merchants, artisans,
officials, politicians, clerics,
minor aristocrats and so on.
And his portraiture seen as a whole
is, I think, a portrait of this class
and the new force
to be reckoned with in Europe.
At the same time, it’s autobiography,
it’s undoubtedly autobiography,
because all his sitters
in his latter years look depressed,
and I don’t think they all were depressed,
they’re different people
and had very different personalities,
and I do think the personalities come out,
but at the same time
there’s this melancholy aspect.
He’s also painting with cheaper pigments,
browns, blacks,
he doesn’t have the brilliant colours
of his Bergamo period,
he can’t afford those pigments,
he prefers this and it’s his state of mind
that comes out of these late portraits,
of which we have quite a few in the
exhibition, which I’m happy about.
There’s still a piercing
and very intimate…
…understanding of who they are,
this man who’s quite modestly clothed,
he wears fine clothes but not
very rich ones and he has a felt hat.
It’s a beautifully preserved painting
worth studying up close,
and he seems a bit shy,
nervous at being painted,
as many of us will probably know,
when people take a photograph of you,
you don’t know what to do,
you try to look right, you get it
all wrong and it looks terrible,
I think there’s a bit of that here,
he’s slightly shy and camera shy,
with his tousled hair and so on.
So, a very compelling portrait,
we don’t know who he is.
And this man over here, I think
is one of the great paintings in the show.
It’s of a wealthy man, probably
from Treviso, Liberale da Pinedel,
who was notoriously arrogant and brutal,
and that’s just not what we see here.
It may not be him, but there’s
a strong case for it being him.
Lotto sees something else in this man,
whether it’s him.
He sees somebody ravaged by old age,
he looks out with these slightly wet eyes
and his skin is crumbling,
it’s actually in the texture
of the paint itself.
Lotto’s touch at this point
becomes very sort of chalky and crumbly,
he layers strokes on top of each other
without integrating them,
highlights just lie on top quite dryly,
you see that very much in his hands
and you can see the veins
under his parchment-like skin.
You see the rays of the sun
capturing strands of his beard.
It’s worth looking at closely,
it’s quite dirty,
so it’s harder to access
than the one on the left
because of its condition and the dirt
and the blanched varnish on it,
but do take a look at it.
And then he holds a pair of gloves,
which is something Titian excelled at,
Titian really came up with,
then a handkerchief and there’s tension
in the way he holds it.
This is somebody marked by life,
and I think it’s just a searing portrait,
a human portrait.
And what it reminds me most
of, actually, is Rembrandt.
There’s no direct connection
between Rembrandt and Lotto
that we know of, like Rembrandt
knew about Lotto, I don’t know but…
…they’re both attuned to aspects
of being human that are very similar,
and I think it speaks to Lotto’s
great perspicacity as an artist,
and what makes him so important
is that he understands this
at a point when few other artists do
and other artists like Rembrandt,
great artists pick up on it,
not from Lotto,
but pick up on the same qualities,
these are the difficult,
unarticulated emotions,
the ones that we don’t really…
that we can’t articulate,
One might talk about the subconscious
and so on, a sense of the subconscious,
obviously that’s an anachronistic term
that they had no concept of, but…
…at least not that how we understand it,
but I think it’s there and it’s what
makes him so important as a portraitist.
He’s not very influential
in his immediate aftermath,
he was out of fashion, as I said,
and he dies in 1556 virtually,
I guess, an obscure artist.
He dies at Loreto, the Santa Casa,
the Holy House of Loreto,
inside that church,
beautifully situated on top of the hill
is the childhood home of the Virgin…
…which miraculously was lifted up
from the Holy Land by angels
and flown to Italy, conveniently,
and landed there,
and they built this church
on this very important religious site.
And in 1552,
Lotto joins the congregation there
in recognition of that he can
no longer support himself as a painter.
He continues to paint but he’s living life
as part of the confraternity.
And his last paintings
are painted for them,
and this is one of them, it’s at Loreto,
and it’s very bizarre,
and it’s sort of quietly moving.
You see it’s the Presentation
of the Child, the Christ Child,
in the temple with the rabbi here.
It’s something touching also
that he’s painting
a child as one of his last paintings.
He had a great affinity for children.
You see in this account book
he notes how he was
buying gifts for the children
of his landlords and so on.
He had a clear affinity for children,
even though he never had any of his own.
I’m probably reading too much,
but that’s one touching thing about it,
but it’s also just very interesting
to look at it closely.
The altar in the temple has human feet.
I have no explanation.
And you see here
the way that the onlookers are painted,
very sketchily,
sort of very loosely and sketchily
and not beautifully
in any traditional sense of the word…
…but with great expressive,
I think, energy.
It reminds me of Goya’s
little oil paintings of figures,
there’s something to that here,
and then above the scene
there’s this big empty space,
these are monks benches or something,
it’s just an empty space
with some figures, and some ghostly…
sort of ghostly figures up here,
but it’s an empty space and I think
this is a space of the mind, of the soul,
this is a psychological space,
and a very fitting end to Lotto’s career,
which indeed ends around this time
in 1556 at Loreto,
largely forgotten,
but leaving us a great legacy
of portraiture and indeed art.
Thank you.

10 thoughts on “Curator’s introduction | Lorenzo Lotto Portraits | National Gallery

  1. I enjoyed this presentation a lot. Unlike Yoda, I appreciate that an expert, extemporising without notes over an hour, can sometimes give a richer impression of a subject than a more structured presentation. Although there's a place for both, of course. Thank you National Gallery for posting this free video lecture! I look forward to visiting the exhibition.

  2. Fantastic artist and life. Never heard of him before, but now a massive fan!

  3. Enjoyable and informative talk about Lotto, probably the first with drone footage scattered throughout.

  4. Thank you very much NG to organise such a great exhibition and offer this great introduction. I enjoy this lecture enormously and am most grateful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *