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The Master of Sorrow: Lorenzo Lotto Portraits at the National Gallery
November 18, 2018
Lorenzo Lotto might not be the most famous Italian Renaissance artist in the world, but a new show at the National Gallery in London, which examines his portrait works, is helping re-establish his name.
Lotto lived in an age when people had a preoccupation with getting to grips with human life – Leonardo da Vinci was busy cutting up human bodies and the doctor Vesalius had recently published a book in 1543 detailing human anatomy in grizzly illustrations. All this fed into Lotto’s work, where you can see the blue of veins pulsing beneath the translucent skin of the face of his sitters.
Lotto’s sitters, which include friars painted with burning religious zeal, and nobles held aloft, feel incredibly real. Their faces feel touchable, and their emotions are palpable. A woman wearing a puffy green dress dominates one canvas, holding an illustration of the Roman heroine Lucretia, depicted at the moment before she stabbed herself to death having been raped by a tyrant; clearly an observation of the powerless role of women in 16thcentury Italy, and hundreds of years prior.
The role of the Renaissance portraitist wasn’t just to depict the sitter’s likeness, it was to capture their soul. Despite the fact that famous faces are few and far between in this show – many of the names having been lost to time – each subject is painted with a window into their consciousness. Lotto clearly is fascinated by identity.
Born in Venice in 1480, the artist grew up in an era when contemporary portraiture was finding its feet. In 1502 the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini painted his revolutionary portrait of Leonardo Loredan, which harked back to Classical Roman antecedents but with a modern twist, and a year later Da Vinci started the groundbreaking Mona Lisa. Following on this path, Lotto, with little holding back, paints his earliest subjects with the same sense of drama, tenderness and realism.
Yet while the scandalous lives of Da Vinci and Bellini were well documented, Lotto had no biographer to detail his working between Northern Italian cities. He spent some time in Venice, but never became a household name, and instead painted wealthy and well-known subjects in the more provincial town of Bergamo. He failed to ever really find success, often living hand to mouth, painting works for his land lord in lieu of rent, and died in 1556-57 in a religious commune where he was seeking shelter.
It is little wonder then that the majority of his outstanding oeuvre is tinged with a sense of sadness. In one of his later works, from around 1530, he paints a young man posing in black, with a rife sense of melancholia. The man closely studies a book while rose petals and remedies for depression are scattered around. Whether its projection of his own state of mind, or purely a strong sense of sympathy that the also-afflicted artist feels, we don’t know. But clearly these two connect through a shared sense of being dealt a rough hand.
One of the highlights of the show is a surviving portrait cover. During the 16thcentury portraits were intensely private works of art, and often came with a wooden board that would be removed by the owner when they wanted to see, or share, the image of their lover of ancestor. These covers were often painted with scenes of landscapes, or satyrs, but today very few remain – later collectors, who wanted to display their art collections on their walls for all to see, discarded them like Amazon packaging. Here Lotto’s cover gives you a sense of the business behind his work, while its quality hints at the pride he took in everything he did.
This small but punchy show proves that Lotto is an artist who painted with both his head and his heart. His sorrow can be felt in each work, along with the story of his life. Yet his mastery of skill, subject and approach is now finally being understood thanks to his reassessment by scholars, and now thanks to this show, the public.
Words by Toby Mellors
Lorenzo Lotto Portraits at the National Gallery, London, until 10 February 2019