Bernhard Berenson – ‘Lorenzo Lotto’

IN 1480, when Lotto was born, Giorgione, Titian, and Palma were already alive. These three pupils of Giovanni Bellini form a group who carried painting beyond the methods and ideals of their master, even before his death; and Lotto, although not their fellow-pupil, but attached to the kindred school of Alvise Vivarini, kept abreast of the advance they made. Giorgione died young; Palma’s talents were not of the highest order; Titian, therefore, remained without a rival among the younger generation of Bellini’s followers, taking that place in the Venice of the sixteenth century which was Bellini’s in the fifteenth. This position he took and continued to hold, not by mere chance, but by right, for his genius was of the kind which enabled him to embody the dominant tendencies of his age, as Bellini had em-bodied those of an earlier generation. Titian alone, of all the Italian painters of the sixteenth century, expressed the master feelings, the passions, and the struggles then prevailing. The expression he gave to the ideals of his own age has that grandeur of form, that monumental style of composition, that arresting force of color, which make the world recognize a work of art at once, and forever acclaim it a classic; but with all these qualities, Titian’s painting is as impersonal, as untinged by individuality, as Bellini’s. Indeed, to express the master passions of a majority implies a power of impersonal feeling and vision, and implies, too, a certain happy insensibility—the very leaven of genius, perhaps.

This insensibility, this impersonal grasp of the world about him, Lotto lacked. A constant wanderer over the face of Italy, he could not shut his eyes to its ruin, nor make a rush for a share in the spoils. The real Renaissance, with all its blithe promise, seemed over and gone. Lotto, like many of his noblest countrymen, turned to religion for consolation, but not to the official Christianity of the past, nor to the stereotyped Romanism of the near future. His yearning was for immediate communion with God, although, true to his artistic temperament, he did not reject forms made venerable by long use and sweet association. He is thus one of the very few artists who embodies in his works a state of feeling in Italy which contained the promises of a finer and higher life, and a more earnest religion. As these promises were never realized, Lotto at times seems more like a precursor of the counter-Reformation; but at all events, he is there to witness to an attitude of mind in Italy which, although not the dominant, could have been by no means rare. To know the sixteenth century well it is almost more important to study Lotto than Titian. Titian only embodies in art-forms what we already know about the ripe Renaissance, but Lotto supplements and even modifies our idea of this period. . . .

The chief note of Lotto’s work is not religiousness—at any rate not the religiousness of Fra Angelico or the young Bellini—but personality, a consciousness of self, a being aware at every moment of what is going on within one’s heart and mind, a straining of the whole tangible universe through the web of one’s temperament. This implies exquisite sensitiveness, a quality which could not be appreciated by a people who were preparing to submit to the double tyranny of Spain and the papacy. Nor was a man who strained the whole universe through a sensitive personality like to interpret Scripture and the legends of the saints in a way that would be pleasing to the new catholicism.

Lotto’s temper of mind was thus a hindrance to his success, but a sensitive personality has a more vital drawback still in those inevitable fluctuations of mood which make it so much more difficult for a man like Lotto than for one like Titian to keep the level he has once attained. But Lotto’s very sensitiveness gave him an appreciation of shades of feeling that would utterly have escaped Titian’s notice.

He was, in fact, the first Italian painter who was sensitive to the varying states of the human soul. He seems always to have been able to define his feelings, emotions, and ideals, instead of being a mere highway for them; always to recognize at the moment the value of an impression, and to enjoy it to the full before it gave place to another. This makes him preeminently a psychologist, and distinguishes him from such even of his contemporaries as are most like him: from Darer, who is near him in depth, and from Correggio, who comes close to him in sensitiveness. The most constant attitude of Dürer’s mind is moral earnestness; of Correggio’s, rapturous emotion; of Lotto’s, psychological interest—that is to say, interest in the effect things have on the human consciousness. . . .

Like other painters of the Italian Renaissance, Lotto, precocious as he seems to have been, did not attain full expression of his genius at a single bound. Although the entire series of his early works, from Sir William Mar-tin Conway’s `Danaë’ (London), painted before 1500, to the Recanati altar-piece of 1508, have qualities of drawing, of chiaroscuro, and of color which clearly distinguish them from the work of any other artist of the time, nevertheless the dominant note of his spirit is as yet scarcely apparent. Nor is this surprising when we stop to reflect that even the born psychologist must have the material of experience to work upon. In these early essays, therefore, we find Lotto even more dependent in spirit than in technique upon the school he comes from. The religious severity and asceticism which characterize the school of the Vivarini, even at a time when the Bellini had become paganized, stamp all Lotto’s youthful works. They have none of the pagan quality that marks the Madonnas Giorgione and Titian were painting at the same time, and nothing could be more utterly opposed to them in feeling than the decorous little garden-parties—the “Sante Con versazioni”—infallibly called to mind when the name of Palma is mentioned…. Unpsychological as Lotto is in his first works, he is groping toward something far more conscious and personal than any of his Venetian predecessors had attained; and it is this initial note of personality, added to the asceticism of the school in which he was trained, that gives his own early pictures a moral earnestness and a depth of feeling which place them beside Dürer’s. .

It is a temptation to speak of the portraits at greater length than their relative number warrants, because they gave freest scope to psychological treatment. But Lotto was not like Moroni, a mere portrait painter. Religious subjects occupied most of his energies, and we shall see presently to what ex-tent his psychological spirit permeates these works as well. Devoting our attention for a moment, however, to his portraits, we find that not one of the score still existing leaves us indifferent. They all have the interest of personal confessions. Never before or since has any one brought out on the face more of the inner life. His psychological interest is never of a purely scientific kind. It is, above all, humane, and makes him gentle and full of charity for his sitters, as if he understood all their weaknesses without despising them, so that he nearly always succeeds in winning our sympathy for them; and even where he has sitters to whom no other painter of the time would have managed to give a shred of personality, he succeeds in bringing out all that is more personal in them, all that could possibly have differentiated them from other people of their age and station. Taken all together, his portraits are full of meaning and interest for us, for he paints people who seem to feel as we do about many things, who have already much of our spontaneous kindness, much of our feeling for humanity, and much of our conscious need of human ties and sympathy. . . .

I have said that Lotto, as distinguished from other artists of his time, is psychological. He is intensely personal as well But these qualities are only different aspects of the same thing, psychological signifying an interest in the personality of others, and personal, an interest in one’s own psychology. In his portraits Lotto is more distinctly psychological; in his religious subjects —the only other class of paintings which, with few exceptions, he ever undertook—he is not only psychological, but personal as well. He interprets profoundly, and in his interpretation expresses his entire personality, showing at a glance his attitude towards the whole of life.

When Lotto went to Bergamo he was thirty-three years old, and complete master of his craft. He was in the full vigor of manhood and entering upon the happiest period of his career. His pictures of this time, particularly those still preserved at Bergamo, have an exuberance, a buoyancy, and a rush of life which find utterance in quick movements, in an impatience of architectonic restraint, in bold foreshortenings, and in brilliant, joyous coloring. There is but one other Italian artist whose paintings could be described in the same words, and that is Correggio. Between Lotto’s Bergamask pictures and Correggio’s mature works the likeness is indeed startling. As it is next to impossible to establish any actual connection between them, this likeness may be taken as one of the best instances to prove the inevitability of expression. Painters of the same temperament, living at the same time, and in the same country, are bound to express themselves in nearly the same way—not only to create the same ideals, but to have the same preferences for certain attitudes, for certain colors, and for certain effects of light. Yet Lotto, even in these Bergamask works, differs from Correggio by the whole of his psychological bent. Correggio is never psychological; he is too ecstatic, too rapturous. He is as tremulously sensitive as Lotto, but his sensitiveness is naïvely sensuous, while Lotto reserves his most exquisite sensitiveness for states of the human soul. His expression is less complete than either Correggio’s or Titian’s, for in him there is ever the element of self-consciousness, of reflection, reduced for a brief while within the narrowest limits, yet never entirely absent. The altar-pieces in Bergamo at San Bartolommeo, at Santa Spirito, at San Bernardino, the larger tarsias at Santa Maria Maggiore in that city, and the frescos of the chapel at Trescorre are all full of this Renaissance intoxication, sobered down before it grows Dionysiac by a correcting touch of self-consciousness. They have beauty, they have romance, they have quickness of life and a joy in light, as if sunshine were the highest good; but the beauty is an extremely personal ideal, too strange, too expressive, to be unconscious; the romance is too delicate, the quickness of life too subtle, and the joy in light too dainty not to betray an artist vividly conscious of it all as he lives and creates.

This consciousness is at the very opposite pole from ordinary self-consciousness. It is in no way connected with social ambitions or unattainable ideals. Its whole result, so far as beauty is concerned, is to make the artist linger more over his work with a more intimate delight. Lotto has too keen a joy in his art to treat any detail, even the smallest, as a matter of indifference or convention. His landscapes never sink to mere backgrounds, but harmonize with the themes of his pictures like musical accompaniments, showing that he was well aware of the effect scenery and light produce upon the emotions. Far from treating the hand as a mere appendage, he makes it as expressive, as eloquent, as the face itself, and in some of his pictures the hands form a more vital element in the composition than even in Leonardo da Vinci’s `Last Supper.’ Even in decoration Lotto entirely casts loose from architectural convention, letting himself be swayed by his personal feeling only for what is tasteful. He displays a sense almost Japanese for effects to be obtained from a few sprays of leaves and flowers arranged as it were accidentally, or joined loosely with a ribbon so as to form a frame—for scattered rose-petals or trees blown by the wind on a cliff.

It is in this period of his career, while he was at Bergamo, that Lotto, as we have seen, is most in touch with the general spirit of his time. This ex-plains why his Bergamask pictures appeal far more than his earlier or later works to all lovers of classic Italian painting—that is to say, to all people who feel the spell of the Italian Renaissance. Yet even here his way of painting separated him widely from his more successful Venetian contemporaries. They were without exception followers of Giorgione. It is true that in delicacy of touch and refinement of feeling no one came so near to that great master as Lotto, but these qualities counted for little with a public in-different to what was individual in Giorgione’s spirit, but so enamored of the glitter and flash, the depth and warmth of his coloring, that they would welcome no picture which did not give them a distinctly Giorgionesque effect. Lotto’s coloring is never distinctly Giorgionesque. In the works of his earlier and of his Bergamask years it is subtle, it is spontaneous, but it is a world removed from Titian’s. . . . His type of beauty also, although during these Bergamask years it comes nearest to being a definite type, differs from Titian’s and Correggio’s in the same way in which his spirit differs from theirs, being more refined, more subtle, more expressive, and, as compared with Titian’s at any rate, less like a mask. Lotto cannot always reproduce the same face. He colors it too much with his own mood; it is too highly charged with expression to conform to any fixed ideal of outline or feature. . . .

Both Titian and Lotto are dramatic. Titian attains his dramatic effect by a total subordination of individuality to the strict purposes of a severe architectonic whole. The bystanders are mere reflectors of the emotion which it is the purpose of the artist their presence should heighten; their personality is of no consequence. Lotto, on the other hand, attains his dramatic effect in the very opposite way. He makes us realize the full import of the event by the different feelings it inspires in people of all kinds. He does this, of course, because his real interest is psychological, while Titian’s method follows with equal consequence from the epic nature of his genius. But what makes both Titian and Lotto in their different methods equally dramatic is that they have an equal power of vivid representation. In the one case, the subject is the event itself; in the other, the emotion roused by the event—not the emotion of a chorus, but the emotion as felt by distinct individuals.

Lorenzo Lotto was, then, a psychological painter in an age which ended by esteeming little but force and display, a personal painter at a time when personality was fast getting to be of less account than conformity, evangelical at heart in a country upon which a rigid and soulless catholicism was daily strengthening its hold. Even the circumstances of his life, no less than his character, were against his acquiring a reputation. Restless and a wanderer, he left but few pictures in Venice, his native town, so that the sixteenth-century amateurs, from whom we have derived our current notions about the art of that time, did not find there enough of Lotto’s work to carry away enthusiastic accounts of it. But even if circumstances had been more favorable, it is probable that Lotto’s reputation would have paled before that of his great rival, who gained and kept through a long lifetime the attention of the public. Achievements so brilliant and so well advertised as Titian’s could leave but scant room for the European fame of a painter the appreciation of whose peculiar merits required a better trained eye and a more delicate sense of personality than were common in the camp of Charles v. or the court of Philip ll.

But for us Lotto’s value is of a different sort. Even if modern art were not educating us, as it is, to appreciate the technical merit of work such as his, nevertheless, in any age personality molding a work of art into a veritable semblance of itself is so rare a phenomenon that we cannot afford to neglect it. Least of all should we pass it by when that personality happens to be, as Lotto’s was, of a type towards which Europe has moved during the last three centuries with such rapidity that nowadays there probably are a hundred people like Lotto for one who resembled him in his own lifetime. His spirit is more like our own than is, perhaps, that of any other Italian painter; it has all the appeal and fascination of a kindred soul in another age.

( Originally Published 1904 )

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