Lorenzo Lotto

The Italian painter Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480-1556), one of the great masters of the Venetian Renaissance, is known for his well-articulated yet gently rendered portraits, soft and rich colors and the sometimes fanciful character of his history painting.

Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice, and his early work has a decidedly crisp and clear character that shows the influence of the Venetian painters Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, although it also reflects the lyricism of Giorgione and, in the treatment of landscape, the influence of German painters and printmakers, notably Albrecht Dürer. A masterpiece of Lotto's early period is the portrait of Bishop Bernardo dé Rossi (1505), painted in the finest detail with utmost clarity. A beautiful light is cast over the formally posed half-length figure; the face does not betray any emotion, but the eyes are brilliant and animated.

In 1509 Lotto went to Rome. He probably stayed until about 1512 and may, therefore, have been directly exposed to the art of Raphael and Michelangelo, who were then working in Rome. Lotto's complex and rich paintings executed in Bergamo between 1513 and 1526 show the influence not only of Raphael but also of Lombard painting and the art of Titian. Indeed, noticeable throughout Lotto's career is a subtle attunement of his work to that of the greatest artists among his contemporaries, but always in a way that is uniquely his own. He experimented with and mastered a very gentle and ever softer but consistently accurate style, somewhat in the manner of Correggio but bathed in the richer, more colorful light of Venice. Lotto was often pointedly complex in his choice of gestures and figure poses, as well as in the invention of his stories.

Lotto was a wanderer and evidently improvident, for though he was celebrated as a painter by his contemporaries he was poor. His travels and long sojourns took him to Ancona, Treviso, and the Marches, but Venice was his principal place of residence. In 1552 he moved to Loreto and gave all his property (such as it was) and the promise of his services as a painter to the sanctuary of the Holy House. In return, he was made an oblate of the Blessed Virgin. He died in Loreto sometime after Sept. 1, 1556.

The somewhat melancholy charm and the occasional majesty of Lotto's mature work are perhaps most evident in his portraits. They are not only convincing likenesses but, in a realm at once precise and vague, evocations of the souls of the sitters. Often the figures look at us with a certain intensity as if they wanted to pass on to us a knowledge that transcends words. Such is the case in the portrait of the Venetian art collector Andrea Odoni (1527), who, surrounded by his treasures, holds out to us an antique statuette representing Diana of Ephesus, the goddess of nature. Whatever the literal meaning of the conceit, in his eyes and in his gesture, with his other hand upon his heart, we see depicted the solace art afforded him and may afford us.

As a history painter, Lotto often presented new and elaborate inventions. An affecting example of his finest accomplishments in this genre is Christ Taking Leave of His Mother (1521). The Madonna swoons and falls into the arms of St. John and Mary Magdalen. Christ kneels before her, his arms crossed over his chest; his pose and countenance show the love and compassion he feels for his mother. The female donor, portrayed on the right, holds an open book and half looks at it and half at the scene before her. Evidently the book has led her to meditate on the vivid story.


Further Reading on Lorenzo Lotto

The best book in English on Lotto is the classic study by Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto (1895). It was reprinted with a new introduction and corrections by the author in 1956.