Artist – The Art Of Lotto

UNTIL the appearance in 1895 of the first edition of Mr. Bernhard Berenson’s `Lorenzo Lotto, an Essay in Constructive Art Criticism’ many beliefs concerning the painter had been unquestioningly accepted as facts which Mr. Berenson’s exhaustive study has rendered no longer tenable. Vasari’s statement that Lotto was a pupil of Giovanni Bellini, as were his con-temporaries Giorgione, Titian, and Palma, has been repeated by every writer of the history of Italian art, including Crowe and Cavalcaselle, and even Lotto’s more appreciative critic, the late Giovanni Morelli. Mr. Berenson, however, refutes this tradition with many and carefully considered arguments. Lotto, he believes, was the direct pupil, not of Bellini, but of Alvise Vivarini, a Muranese painter of distinction who became the chief of a school in Venice which rivaled, but was in no way connected with, that of Bellini. The influence of Alvise Vivarini, he points out, is plainly perceptible in the work of his pupil, Lorenzo Lotto, who, long after the fifteenth century had ceased to be aught but a memory to Giorgione, Titian, and Palma, his older contemporaries, remained, in composition, coloring, and technique, immersed in its traditions, carrying them on even into the perfect Renaissance of the sixteenth century.

Mr. Berenson divides Lotto’s works into various periods. Those painted prior to 1509 are in his first manner and bear most distinctly the marks of his early training. In them the types are antiquated, almost archaic, the coloring timid, and the composition simple and somewhat severe.

Always susceptible by nature, Lotto was quick to feel the influence of other artists, and in the course of his career we can trace in his works the impress, not only of his master, Alvise Vivarini, but of Jacopo di Barbari, Bartolommeo Montagna, Cima da Conegliano, Giovanni Bellini, Carlo Crivelli, and others. After his return from Rome in 1512 the influence of Raphael is perceptible in many of his paintings, which show more dramatic treatment and an inclination to exaggerate certain of Lotto’s own inherent tendencies—a blond, almost golden, tone of coloring and an over-expressive gesture of the hands. The effect of the artist’s acquaintance with Jacopo Palma is also observable in works of about this time. Occasionally, how-ever, Lotto, so to speak, asserted his independence, and especially in his portraits gave evidence that neither Palma nor Raphael nor any other had been followed, but that a distinctly individual note had been struck and a delicate psychological insight shown such as none of his contemporaries could surpass, if, indeed, they could equal.

During the twelve years following 1513, which Lotto, with occasional breaks, spent in Bergamo—a time that has been designated as his “Bergamask period”—he was thrown little with other Venetian painters, and in consequence his individual style became more developed. The works executed at this time have a freshness and exuberance about them that invest them with a peculiar charm.

It was, however, after this, between 1529 and 1540, that his greatest pictures were painted—pictures that most clearly reveal his powers as a psychologist, a poet, and a profound thinker. Indeed, as M. Müntz has said, “No more striking instance could be found of the metamorphosis of a primitive painter into a champion of the golden age of art.” Titian’s influence has been traced in the breadth of treatment and rich coloring which characterize many of Lotto’s religious pictures of this late period, as well as in some of the wonderful portraits painted at this time in which the technique recalls the greatest of the Venetian masters, but in which he shows a certain subtle introspective quality and suggestiveness peculiarly his own.

During the last years of his life Lotto produced many works remarkable for their vigor and keen insight into character. He continued painting to the end, and his last works—a series of pictures of unequal merit, almost monochrome in tone—are at Loreto, where his days were ended. Mr. Berenson lays stress upon the modern quality of much of Lotto’s latest works, and notes that the way in which the paint is put on strongly recalls the French impressionists of to-day.

Lotto left but few imitators. His style never attained the popularity of many of the artists of his time. His types, when different from those of his precursors and contemporaries, were too much the expression of his own personality to admit of any imitation that was not caricature. “Like Raphael, like Michelangelo, like Correggio,” writes Mr. Berenson, “Lotto completely exhausted a certain vein, leaving nothing for followers; and it must be added that Lotto himself approached too close to the brink of decadence for imitators not to plunge into the gulf.”


WITH few exceptions, all Lotto’s works are religious pictures or portraits; the former marked by an intense fervor, the latter by an extraordinary psychological insight into character, and a power of catching and perpetuating transient emotions and delicate shades of feeling. His peculiar melancholy sentiment, that anxious craving expression seen in so many of his portraits, together with certain qualities of coloring and an extreme grace-fulness of form, distinguish his pictures from those of the other Venetian masters. . . .

There are no Madonnas in the whole range of Venetian art more lovely than those in Lotto’s three great altar-pieces at Bergamo, in which the painter poured out the poetry of his soul. There is a freshness and brightness about them which we scarcely find in his later altar-pieces, splendid though these often are; they are more lyrical, more free, and almost joyous. Lotto’s angels, even at the end of his career, breathe forth a purely Raphaelesque tenderness and grace quite unlike those of any other Venetian painter of the sixteenth century; in his picture of the `Madonna and Child with Saints’ at Vienna, where the angel crowns. the Madonna with a garland of flowers, in the `Nativity’ at Brescia, in his `Annunciations’ at Recanati and Ponteranica, they are spiritual beings of surpassing beauty. . . .

Exquisite though his religious pictures are, however, it is his portraits especially which place Lotto among the world’s great artists; and it is his sensitiveness, sometimes almost morbid, and his great psychological skill that make these portraits so marvelous. Morelli has observed: “To understand Italian history it is absolutely necessary to study portraits both male and female, for some portion of the history of the period is always written in those faces if we only knew how to read it.”

Lotto in his art, as in his life, seems the type of the class of persons who, sickened with the immorality of their century and conscious of Italy’s down-fall, were turning to religion and anticipating the Catholic reaction. The burden of the portraits he painted is, that all Italy was not so corrupt as we sometimes are inclined to suppose; there were men and women untainted by its vices; there were priests and prelates full of apostolic fervor and pure zeal. Look at the portrait of the `Prothonotary Juliano’ in the London National Gallery, and at the deacons receiving petitions and distributing alms in the St. Antoninus altar-piece in the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice—these are the new clergy arising, as the Rome of the Borgias passed away, to perform within the Church what Luther was professedly doing with-out. Equally admirable are Lotto’s portraits of the laity, men and women; each tells us a life history, a soul’s comedy or tragedy, as the case may be. The comedy is perhaps rarer, for, as a rule, there is an air of oppressive sadness about Lotto’s sitters, as though the painter’s own melancholy view of life- made him read into them a little of his own morbid self-consciousness and his religious aspirations.

( Originally Published 1904 )

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