His portraits are puzzles, his life enigmatic, his reputation bizarrely neglected. Yet anyone who visits this tremendous exhibition will be instantly struck by one clear and certain truth about the Venetian master Lorenzo Lotto (c 1480-1557), which is his singular psychological genius.
It is right there in the first portrait, of the bishop of Treviso, his light blue eyes tenacious and shrewd, face as tense as the hand gripping a legal scroll probably related to his campaigns against corrupt local grandees. Lotto shows him as a formidable force, brave enough to survive their assassination attempts: the Renaissance equivalent of today’s courageous anti-mafia lawyers.
The bishop appears remarkably aware of being painted. Lotto’s sitters always have this heightened sense of self-consciousness. The anxious merchant, the nervous scholar, the elderly lawyer: each seems to see his life summed up in the moment of depiction. And Lotto awards them all the same gift: a startling combination of intensity and profundity.
Lotto was born in Venice just after Giorgione, whom he admired, and just before Titian, with whom he has been confused. His life was nomadic, circulating between Bergamo, Treviso, Venice, the Marches and Rome, where he briefly worked alongside Raphael at the Vatican, though these paintings were apparently disliked and rejected. His work may be less familiar, but Lotto’s character is far better known than any of these contemporaries because he left eloquent written testimonies to his own worried, defensive, isolated and frequently depressive cast of mind. In art as in life, his motto seems to have been Know Thyself.
The look of his portraits – and, to some extent, the many altarpieces – is both penetrating and idiosyncratic. Beautifully lit faces appear almost eerily immediate against dark backdrops or Lotto’s famous green curtains. He did away with the usual ledge or parapet to bring his sitters closer, and painted couples in widescreen horizontal formats. There is no conventional rhetoric or flattery here, far from it. The question every time is: what is odd or striking about this human being – and their portrait?
A Bergamo doctor props one arm on a table the better to present a cumbersome book to us in the other. The kiltering angle is strange enough but the eyes are red-rimmed and the face has a greenish pallor, as if this physician had failed to heal himself. Leaning even more awkwardly into the picture behind him is his son, a grown man still apparently held back in the shadows. There is ink spatter on the table and a beetle climbs ominously up the doctor’s spotless scarf.
A woman in an expensive velvet dress, its striped arms slashed to reveal gorgeous silk puffs, a fine gold net cape tucked into one shoulder – all exquisitely painted – is posing for the role of Lucretia, legendary heroine of ancient Rome. She holds up a drawing of Lucretia to make the point, which is further confirmed in an emphatic note propped on a table. But she can’t quite pull off the pose and looks almost piqued at all the effort involved in this not-quite allegorical portrait. The illusion of virtue is trumped by reality.
Lotto is a kind of crypto-portraitist, slipping real people into religious scenes, where they often appear quite at home with all the goings-on. This is partly because his saints and angels are usually drawn from the same reality. He is also a master of the casual yet disturbing symbol. Here is Lucina Brembati, a large beaming woman in pearls, slightly coy, all her gold jewellery on bosomy display. The fact that she is smiling is unusual enough in Renaissance art, and she is moreover appearing by the light of a moon in which the initials CI faintly appear (inserted into the middle of the word “luna”, they make her name). But the complacency of the woman and the novelty of the scene are both undermined by a vicious weasel draped around her arm that doesn’t look safely dead.
Animals have the strangest presence in Lotto’s pictures, notably the squirrel lying between a rich husband and wife, dead centre on their carpet-covered table. He leans over it, brandishing a note that reads “Homo Numquam” – man never; but never what? Many theories have been proposed over the years, but not one of them really begins to explain the mystery of this weird composition.
The curators refer to a storm going on outside the window, yet the sky appears perfectly blue. They also have a purely allegorical interpretation of the astonishing portrait in which a young man, pale-faced, slightly reptilian, bends over the books in his study. Rose petals have dropped upon the desk and the table behind him certainly resembles a coffin, so that allusions to the death of love (or his mother: another claim) seem at least reasonable. But the portrait is more than all this, with its forbidding atmosphere and chilly white light. Staring up at the young man from its momentary perch on the desk is a lizard. One cold-blooded creature looking at another.
There is a portrait here in which Lotto doesn’t hold back, sending up a plump young plutocrat in the act of betrothal as he turns smugly to the viewer instead of his fiance. But the artist always sees more, one feels, than the sitters themselves. The masterpiece of the show is his tremendous painting of the Venetian collector Andrea Odoni, one hand to his breast, the other reaching dramatically towards us, holding an ancient statue. It is a magnificent image of obsession and wealth – sculptures all around him – but also of anxiety and unease.
Greek statues turn their back on Odoni. A Roman head forces out from beneath the tablecloth, nearly as animate and human as he is; certainly more heroic. There is money on the table and purchases to come, no doubt, but the light is low and the fleshy face somewhat melancholy. I collect these, Odoni’s extravagant gestures imply; or is it that they collect me?
Ten years before his death, Lotto wrote that “art did not earn me what I spent”. He did not mean money alone, although he was once forced to auction off his own paintings. The sense of how much he gave to art is everywhere apparent in this show – above all in the late portraits that prefigure Rembrandt in their exceptional depth. Old men standing alone against glowing brown grounds, understood and mourned and praised with such grave and meticulous clarity. Monks and scholars, merchants and soldiers: in Lotto’s eyes they are suffering yet patient, wise but restrained, unillusioned and yet somehow still hopeful.
This is the first Lotto show in Britain in more than half a century. With only 30 pictures it is hardly large, but to see them all together is to have a growing portrait of Lotto himself. In what may be a late self-portrait, closely cropped and painted in oil on paper, his eyes look down and to one side, searching for something that cannot be seen in the face alone. It might be the very image of his mind. In old age, he entered a monastery. Increasingly concerned with the spiritual and the poor, Lotto went to live among them.