Artist – Lorenzo Lotto

BORN 1480-DIED 1556


THE honor of being the birthplace of Lorenzo Lotto has been claimed alike by Bergamo and by Treviso, but documents discovered within the last few years prove him to have been one of the few great artists who was actually a native of Venice, where he was born in the year 1480.

Until lately he has been numbered among the scholars of Giovanni Bellini, but is now generally regarded as the pupil of Alvise Vivarini, the head of a rival school, who held an important place in Venetian art at the close of the fifteenth century.

Much of Lotto’s life was spent away from his native Venice. The district of Treviso, that pleasant and joyous land of the old Venetian writers, was the scene of his first efforts, and here, between 1503 and 1506, he painted his first important altar-pieces, at Santa Cristina and at Asolo. In 1505, when only five and twenty, he is mentioned as a “pictor celeberrimus” living at Treviso; and yet when he left that town a year later he was so poor that he had to give up his furniture and most of his clothes to pay the rent of his lodgings. All his life Lotto seems to have been the same—a hard worker but an improvident man, generous and kindly to others, but setting little store by his gains, and taking no thought for the morrow.

From Treviso he went to Recanati, in the province, or march, of Ancona, where he spent the next two years, and painted an altar-piece for the Church of San Domenico there.

From 1508 to 1512 Lotto was in Rome, and was employed in the Vatican during the memorable days when Raphael was painting the Stanze in that palace and Michelangelo was at work in the Sistine Chapel. A document preserved in the Corsini Library, Rome, records that Lotto received one hundred ducats for frescos to be painted in the upper story of the Vatican. No trace of these works remains; but whether he ever executed them or not, he was certainly brought into contact with Raphael, whose influence is apparent in many of his works.

In 1513 Lotto was summoned to Bergamo by Alessandro Mârtinengo (a grandson of Bartolommeo Colleoni, whose statue by Verocchiô is in Venice) to paint the altar-piece now in the Church of San Bartolommeo, Bergamo; and during the next twelve years that city was his headquarters. This was the most prosperous period of Lotto’s life, a period fruitful in great works, and in which he first began to reveal the full extent of his powers. His quick sympathy with the joys and sorrows of the men and women about him, his tender interest in humanity, led him to fill the backgrounds of his sacred pictures with the most varied and lively imagery. It may be that his sympathies were deepened by the circumstances of his own existence, for all his life Lotto was a lonely man, a wanderer from city to city with no fixed place of abode and no close family ties. As early as 1513, before he went to Bergamo, he had no home of his own at Venice, but was living in the great Dominican convent of San Giovanni e Paolo, and in two wills which he made at different times he left the friars of this convent all his possessions.

In 1524 Lotto was engaged in executing several series of works in fresco, the most important of which are those in the Oratorio Suardi at Trescorre, near Bergamo, illustrating the stories of St. Barbara and St. Clara. In the sacristy of the old church of Credaro, not far from Trescorre, are some much injured frescos by him, and in Bergamo itself are the remains of others in a chapel in the Church of San Michele del Pozzo Bianco. Interesting also are the intarsias of the choir stalls in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, illustrating scenes from the Bible, made from Lotto’s designs, many of which are so full of thought and feeling that “regarded even as mere illustrations,” writes Mr. Berenson, “they are of such an order that had Lotto been an engraver and scattered these designs through the world instead of squandering them upon the church of a provincial town, it is likely that he would have come down to us as the acknowledged rival of Dürer.”

Towards the end of 1526 Lotto returned to Venice, where he spent most of the next sixteen years. Here he renewed an early friendship with the painter Jacopo Palma, and became intimate with Titian, who in after years retained a sincere regard for Lotto, and sent him friendly messages from the court of the Emperor Charles v. “O Lotto, good as goodness, and virtuous as virtue itself,” wrote Pietro Aretino in April, 1548, “Titian from imperial Augsburg, surrounded as he is by all the glory and favor of the world, greets and embraces you. In a letter which he sent me two days ago, he says that the pleasure that he feels in seeing the emperor’s satisfaction with his works would be doubled if he could show- them to you and have the benefit of your approval. For he feels how much the value of your judgment is increased by the experience of years, by the gifts of nature and of art, as well as by that sincere kindliness which makes you judge of the pictures and portraits of others with as much justice and candor as if they were your own. Envy is not in your breast. Rather do you delight to see in other artists certain qualities which you do not find in your own brush, although it performs those miracles which do not come easy to many who yet feel very happy over their technical skill.”

This letter from Aretino, a will which Lotto made in 1546, and an account-book which he kept during the last fifteen years of his life, tell us more about his old age than we learn of any other part of his career. They all bear witness to the gentleness and seriousness of the painter’s nature, to his kindliness of heart and religious spirit. Years had only deepened his habits of devotion, and his unworldliness and earnest piety were well known in Venice. “Holding the second place in the art of painting,” wrote Aretino to him, “is nothing compared to holding the first place in the duties of religion, for doubtless heaven will reward you with a glory beyond all the praise of this world.”

These deeply religious convictions may well have brought Lotto into relation with some of those earnest reformers, such as Contarini or Sadoleto, who, without forsaking the fold of the Church, longed to purify it from its sins and errors. Venice was at that time the meeting place of many such thinkers, and although there is no actual evidence of Lotto’s intercourse with them, the personal nature of his religion and his profound interpretation of Old Testament history render it probable that he was familiar with some members of this little band; and it is significant that one of the first entries in his account-book should be a note of the completion of the portraits of Martin Luther and his wife, which he finished in October, 1540.

Meanwhile the painter’s relations with the monks of San Giovanni e Paolo remained as intimate as ever, and their convent in Venice was still his favorite home. In March, 1542, he finished his great altar-piece for their church, showing St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, throned in glory. The price of the picture was fixed at one hundred and twenty-five ducats, but Lotto asked only ninety, on condition that at his death he should be buried in the convent church free of charge, and in the garb of the Dominican Order. But San Giovanni e Paolo was not to be his last resting place after all. That autumn he went to Treviso and took up his abode in the house of a friend, Zuane del Saon, hoping to find that care and family affection for which he longed, “seeing,” he tells us himself, “that I was advanced in years, without loving care of any sort, and of an anxious mind.” It was Lotto’s hope that Zuane’s son would be benefited by him in the art and science of painting, “for my friend greatly delighted in me,” he wrote, “and it was very dear to him to have me in his house, not only to him, but to his entire family, by whom I was respected and honored. Nor would he have me spend anything or pay a farthing, but remain always with him. And thus I was persuaded to enter into such fellowship, united in Jesus Christ, with the firm intention, however, of repaying so much courtesy and Christian kindness. So I went there. Then they besought me to be pleased to assure them that in case of my death he [their son, who was to be Lotto's heir] should not be molested or annoyed in any way by my relatives. Thereupon I most willingly set my signature to a declaration that in case of my death no relative of mine should be empowered to ask for an account of any goods left over by me.” When, however, this agreement became known in Treviso “respectable people,” Lotto tells us, “turned a cold shoulder to me, saying that I had become a child’s nurse, eating away under the roof of another without earning my salt.” This was more than the painter could bear, and accordingly it was arranged that he should pay his host a yearly sum for board and lodging. But the experiment proved a failure; and after three years Lotto left Treviso, “for divers reasons,” he says, “and chiefly because I did not earn enough by my art for my own support.”

A few months after his return to Venice, on March 25, 1546, he made another will, again leaving all his possessions to the Hospital of San Giovanni e Paolo, and directing that the thirty cartoons which he had made for the tarsias, or pictorial designs inlaid in wood, of the Bergamo choir stalls, on which he seems to have set special store, should be given as a dowry to two maidens, “of quiet nature, healthy in mind and body, and likely to make thrifty housewives,” on their marriage with two “well-recommended young men setting out in the art of painting, likely to appreciate the cartoons and to turn them .to good account.”

In June, 1549, Lotto left Venice to paint an `Assumption’ in a church at Ancona; and early in the following year, having resolved to spend the rest of his life in the Marches (certain Adriatic provinces in the central part of Italy), he sent for the pictures which he had left behind in the charge of Titian’s friend Sansovino. He remained at Ancona painting altar-pieces for neigh-boring churches two years longer, and, in August, 1552, he settled at Loreto, attracted by the beauty of the spot and the presence of the famous sanctuary there. On September 8, 1554, “being tired of wandering, and wishing to end his days in that holy place,” he dedicated himself and all his worldly goods to the service of the Blessed Virgin, and became an inmate of the Holy House of Loreto. Among the conditions named in the deed of gift it was expressly stipulated that he should have rooms, clothing, and a servant, “that he should enjoy the same consideration as a canon, be prayed for as a benefactor, and have one florin a month to do what he pleased with.”

In this quiet retreat Lotto spent the last years of his life, growing daily more feeble, and having almost entirely lost his voice. To the end he worked with his brush, painting not only pictures for the chapels in the basilica of the town, but a series of works in the Palazzo Apostolico there. The last entry in Lotto’s account-book belongs to the latter part of 1556, so that his death could not have occurred until the close of the year. “The last years of the painter’s life,” remarks Vasari, “were exceedingly happy. His soul was filled with a blessed peace, besides which, they had the advantage of winning him eternal life, which he might, perhaps, not have attained had he remained plunged in the affairs of this busy world.”

Of Lotto’s personal appearance we have no information, and no authentic portrait of him has come down to us.

( Originally Published 1904 )

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