Lorenzo Lotto (c1480-1556) was one of the great oddballs of the renaissance. A Venetian painter – a contemporary of Titian and Giorgione – his difficult personality kept him on the move through the cities of northern Italy, chiefly producing idiosyncratic religious paintings that combined the spiritual gravitas of Giovanni Bellini (currently the subject of a major exhibition in the National’s main gallery) with a hallucinatory intensity worthy of Salvador Dali.
Yet, unlike other great unclassifiable mavericks of the period, such as El Greco, Lotto has never been celebrated as an eccentric forerunner of modernism. Bernard Berenson, the influential early 20th century critic, acclaimed Lotto as the first modern portrait painter and “pre-eminently a psychologist”, but even that wasn’t quite enough to propel Lotto into Renaissance first division. Even so, it’s an idea that’s revisited in this exhibition, which brings together nearly 30 of his finest portraits, alongside works on paper and objects.
The opening chronology provides a pithy overview of Lotto’s troubled progress: from assisting Raphael in the frescoes for the papal apartments (some of the greatest works of the renaissance) around 1508 and rivalling Titian as Venice’s most innovative portrait painter in the 1520s, he was later reduced to organising a lottery of his paintings to raise funds (only seven of 46 sold) in the 1550s, before retiring to a religious foundation, “clinically depressed”, as the exhibition text has it. Several works in this show were even painted for landlords in lieu of rent. Now you wouldn’t get Michelangelo doing that.
There’s no hint of anguish, however, in the show’s first significant portrait, of Bernardo de Rossi, Bishop of Treviso (1505), a painting that looks rather flat and faded from a distance, but reveals an almost hyper-real clarity close up. The subtle modelling of the clean-shaven face, the slightly startled pale blue eyes, even the several brown moles – left in view against the idealising norms of the time – all contribute to the sense of an individual encountered eerily outside time.
Lotto is perhaps best known for his double portraits, and the show brings together four strong examples. While his great rival Titian made himself internationally famous painting emperors and popes, Lotto’s clients were drawn from a good couple of rungs down the social scale: merchants, lawyers, civil servants and clerics – “middle class” people as the exhibition, which is slightly too eager to point up the modern aspects of Lotto’s story, puts it. Lotto surrounds the people with the accoutrements of their trades, weaving stories around them with symbolic details.
The elderly doctor Agostino della Torre (c1515), for instance, clutches a large medical tome, while the desk behind him is stacked with realistically-rendered books and prescriptions. The bearded figure of his wealthy merchant son, leaning in over his father’s left shoulder, may have been added after della Torre senior died, but there’s a palpable sense of warmth and intimacy, not only between father and son, but in the openness with which they meet our gaze.
Where portraits are generally vertically oriented, Lotto retained the horizontal formats of his double portraits in images of single subjects. It allowed him to include more telling detail, and lends a powerful narrative sweep to the three extraordinary portraits that form the backbone of the exhibition.
In Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, (c1530-3) a richly-dressed woman, dramatically spot-lit, holds up a drawing of the ancient Roman heroine Lucretia, looking rather fiercely back at us, as though challenging us to make a connection between herself, sporting a gold wedding ring and chain, and the woman in the picture, who killed herself to preserve her honour after being raped.
In Lotto’s best-known portrait, the collector Andrea Odoni spreads his arms in their massively voluminous sleeves across the breadth of the canvas holding a statuette out towards us in a magnificently confident gesture. Surrounded by colossal classical heads and fragments of statuary, this man, a lynchpin of the Venetian art world, has gathered around himself all the culture of the world. Or certainly – in his eyes – a substantial proportion of it.
Where Odoni’s bullish expression projects forcefully outward, the young subject of A Man with a Lizard (c1530-2) seems to shrink back into the surrounding darkness; the long, pale triangle of his face drawn in an expression of intense introspection. Rose petals scattered on the table in front of him symbolise melancholy, and the lizard skittering across it, fleeting time. While the large open tome isn’t the poetry book you might imagine, rather, a business ledger, the glowing window on the far left of the painting, with its distant vista, compounds the mood of romantic yearning.
If Lotto isn’t here quite the “psychologist” Berenson claimed, he’s attempting to balance the renaissance convention of the “allegorical portrait” (providing a dramatized representation of a type – in this case a young man putting aside the pleasures and pains of youth for the responsibilities of adulthood) with creating a hauntingly exact image of a real person, and he does so with success.
In later years, Lotto’s portraits became even more skilled technically. The features of his sitters were softer and more delicate, as in the beautiful Portrait of a Man with a Felt Hat (c1541). Yet they seem to lose some of their idiosyncratic individuality.
The exhibition takes the bold step of introducing real objects of the kind seen in the paintings to provide physical context: classical sculptures, a crimson velvet dress of a type worn by a sitter, a Turkish carpet of a kind seen so frequently in his paintings that it became known as a “Lotto”.
More critical to our understanding of the artist are two large and extraordinary altarpieces containing portraits by Lotto of real people, which give a flavour of the otherworldly exaltation of his great religious works.
This show provides a fascinating view of a unique talent who would never have been in-step with the rest of the world, whatever age he’d lived in. It may not be quite enough in itself to launch Lotto into art’s first division, but it’s not a bad start.