Venetian Painting – Palma Vecchio And Lorenzo Lotto

AMONG the many who clustered round Titian’s long career, Palma attained to a place beside him and Giorgione which his talent, which was not of the highest order, scarcely warranted. But he was classed with the greatest, and influenced contemporary art because his ‘work chimed in so well with the Venetian spirit. A Bergamesque by birth, he came of Venetian parentage, and learnt the first elements of his art in Venice. He never really mastered the inner niceties of anatomy in its finest sense, and the broad generalisation of his forms may be meant to conceal uncertain drawing, but his large-bosomed, matronly women and plump children, his round, soft contours, his clean brilliancy, and the clear golden polish in which his pictures are steeped, made a great appeal to the public. His invention is the large Santa Conversazione, as compared with those in half-length of the earlier masters. The Virgin and saints and kneeling or bending donors are placed under the spreading trees of a rich and picturesque landscape. It is Palma’s version of the Giorgionesque ideal, which he had his share in establishing and developing. The heavy tree-trunk and dark foliage, silhouetted almost black against the background, are characteristic of his compositions. As his life goes on, though he still clings to his full, ripe figures and to the same smooth fleshiness in his women, the features become delicate and chiselled, and the more refined type and subtler feeling of his middle stage may be due to his companionship with Lotto, with whom he was in Bergamo when they were both about twenty-five. He touches his highest, and at the same time keeps very near Giorgione, in the splendid St. Barbara, painted for the company of the Bombadieri or artillerists. Their cannon guard the pedestal on which she stands ; it was at her altar that they came to commend themselves on going forth to war, and where they knelt to offer thanksgiving for a safe return ; and she is a truly noble figure, regal in conception and fine and firm in execution, attired in sumptuous robes of golden brown and green, with splendid saints on either hand. Palma was often approached by his patrons who wanted mythological scenes, gods, and goddesses ; but though he produced a Venus, a handsome, full-blown model, he never excels in the nude, and his tendency is to seize upon the homely. His scenes have a domestic, familiar flavour. With all his golden and ivory beauty he lacks fire, and his personages have a sluggish, plethoric note. In his latest stage he hides all sharpness in a sort of stumble or haze. It would, however, be unfair to say he is not fine, and his portraits especially come very near the best. Vienna is rich in examples in half-lengths of one beautiful woman after another robed in the ample and gorgeous garments in which he is always interested. Among them is his handsome daughter, Violante, with a violet in her bosom, and wearing the large sleeves he admires. The ” Tasso ” of the National Gallery has been taken from him and given first to Giorgione and then to Titian, but there now seems some inclination to return it to its first author. It has a more dreamy, intellectual countenance than we are accustomed to associate with Palma ; but he uses elsewhere the decorative background of olive branches, and the waxen complexion, tawny colouring, and the pronounced golden haze are Palmesque in the highest degree. The colouring is in strong contrast to the pale ivory glow of the Ariosto of Titian, which hangs near it.

No one could be more unlike Palma than his contemporary, Lorenzo Lotto, who has for long been classed with the Bergamesques, but who is proved by recently discovered documents to have been born in Venice. It was for long an accepted fact that Lotto was a pupil of Bellini, and his earliest altarpiece, to S. Cristina at Treviso, bears traces of Bellini’s manner. A Pietà above has child angels examining the wounds with the grief and concern which Bellini made so peculiarly his own, and the St. Jerome and the branch of fig-leaves silhouetted against the light remind us of the altarpiece in S. Crisostomo. Lotto seems to have clung to quattrocento fashions. The ancona had long been rejected by most of his contemporaries, but he painted one of the last for a church in Recanati, in carved and gilt compartments, and he painted predellas long after they had become generally obsolete. We ask ourselves how it was that Lotto, who had so susceptible and easily swayed a nature, escaped the influence of Giorgione, the most powerful of any in the Venice of his youth—an influence which acted on Bellini in his old age, which Titian practically never shook off, and which dominated Palma to the exclusion of any earlier master.

It would take too long to survey the train of argument by which Mr. Berenson has established Alvise Vivarini as the master of Lotto. Notwithstanding that Bellini’s great superiority was becoming clear to the more cultured Venetians, Alvise, when Lotto was a youth, was still the painter par excellence for the mass of the public. In the S. Cristina altarpiece the Child standing on its Mother’s knee is in the same attitude as the Child in Alvise’s altarpiece of 1480, and the Mother’s hand holds it in the same way. Other details which supply internal evidence are the shape of hands and feet, the round heads and the way the Child is often represented lying across the Mother’s knees. Lotto carries into old age the use of fruit and flowers and beads as decoration, a Squarcionesque feature beloved of the Vivarini, but which was never adopted by Bellini.

About 1512 Lotto comes into contact with Palma, and for a short time the two were in close touch. A ” Santa Conversazione,” of which a good copy exists in Villa Borghese, Rome, and one at Dresden, with the Holy Family grouped under spreading trees, is saturated with Palma’s spirit, but it soon passes away, and except for an occasional touch, disappears entirely from Lotto’s work.

Lotto may have had relations in Bergamo, for when in 1515 a competition between artists was set on foot by Alessandro Martino, a descendant of General Colleone, for an altar-piece for S. Stefano, he competed and carried off the prize. This was the first of the series of the great works for Bergamo, which enrich the little city, where at this period he can best be studied. The great altarpiece (now re-moved to San Bartolommeo) is a most interesting human document, a revelation of the painter’s personality. He does not break away from hieratic conventions, like the rival school ; his Madonna is still placed in the apse of the church with saints grouped round her, a form from which the Vivarini never departed, but the whole is full of intense movement, of a lyric grace and ecstasy, a desire to express fervent and rapturous devotion. The architectural background is not in happy proportion in relation to the figures, but the effect of vista and space is more remarkable than in any North Italian master. The vivid treatment of light and shade, and the gaiety and delicacy of the flying angels, who hold the canopy, and of the putti, who spread the carpet below, the shapes of throne and canopy and the decorations have led to the idea that Lotto drew his inspiration from Correggio, whom he certainly resembles in some ways ; but at this time Correggio was only twenty, and had not given any examples of the style we are accustomed to call Correggiesque. We must look back to a common origin for those decorative details, which are so conspicuous in Crivelli and Bartolommeo Vivarini, which came to Lotto through the Vivarini and to Correggio through Ferrarese painters, and of which the fountain-head for both was the school of Squarcione. For the much more striking resemblances of composition and spirit, the ex-planation seems to be that Lotto on one side of his nature was akin to Correggio ; he had the same lyrical feeling, the same inclination to exuberance and buoyancy. To both, painting was a vehicle for the expression of feeling, but Lotto had also common sense and a it makes him paint in deeper, fiercer tints, and he soon finds it does not suit him, and returns to his own scheme. His colour is still rather too dazzling, but the distances are translucent and atmospheric. He continues to introduce portraits. In his altarpiece in SS. Giovanni and Paolo the deacons giving alms and receiving petitions curiously resemble in type and expression the ecclesiastics we see today.

Lotto was now an accepted member of Titian’s set, and Aretino, in a letter dated 1548, writes that Titian values his taste and judgment as that of no other ; but Aretino, with his usual mixture of connoisseurship and clever spite, goes on to insinuate accidentally, as it were, what he himself knew perfectly well, that Lotto was not considered on a par with the masters of the first rank. ” Envy is not in your breast,” he says, ” rather do you delight to see in other artists certain qualities which you do not find in your own brush, . . . holding the second place in the art of painting is nothing compared to holding the first place in the duties of religion.”

An interesting codex or commentary tells us that Lotto never received high prices for his work, and we hear of him hawking pictures about in artistic circles, putting them up in raffles, and leaving a number with Jacopo Sansovino in the hope that he might hear of buyers. His work ended as it had begun, in the Marches. He undertook commissions at Recanati, Ancona, and Loreto, and in September 1554 he concluded a contract with the Holy House at Loreto, by which, in return for rooms and food, he made over himself and all his belongings to the care of the fraternity, ” being tired of wandering, and wishing to end his days in that holy place.” He spent the last four years of his life at Loreto as a votary of the Virgin, painting a series of pictures which are distinguished by the same sort of apparent looseness and carelessness which we noticed in Titian’s late style ; a technique which, as in Titian’s case, conceals a profound knowledge of plastic modelling.

Though Lotto executed an immense number of important and very beautiful sacred works, his portraits stand apart, and are so interesting to the modern mind that one is tempted to linger over them. Other painters give us finer pictures ; in none do we feel so anxious to know who the sitters were and what was their story. Lotto has nothing of the Pagan quality which marks Giorgione and Titian ; he is a born psychologist, and as such he witnesses to an attitude of mind in the Italy of his day which is of peculiar interest to our own. Lotto’s by-. standers, even in his sacred scenes, have nothing in common with Titian’s “chorus”; they have the characterisation of distinct individuals, and when he is concerned with actual portraits he is intensely receptive and sensitive to the spirit of his sitters.

He may be said to give them away,” and to take an almost unfair advantage of his perception. The sick man in the Doria Gallery looks like one stricken with a death sentence. He knows at least that it is touch and go, and the painter has symbolised the situation in the little winged genius balancing himself in a pair of scales. In the Borghese Gallery is the portrait of a young, magnificently dressed man, with a countenance marked by mental agitation, who presses one hand to his heart, while the other rests on a pile of rose-petals in which a tiny skull is half-hidden. The Old Man ” in the Brera has the hard, narrow, but intensely sad face of one whose natural disposition has been embittered by the circumstances of his life, just as that of our Prothonotary speaks of a large and gentle nature, mellowed by natural affections and happy pursuits. We smile, as Lotto does, with kindly mischief at ” Marsilio and his Bride,” the broad, placid countenance of the man is so significantly contrasted with the clever mouth and eyes of the bride that it does not need the malicious glance of the cupid, who is fitting on the yoke, to “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” of their future. Again, the portrait of Laura di Pola, in the Brera, introduces us to one of those women who are charming in every age, not actually beautiful, but harmonious, thoughtful, perfectly dressed, sensible, and self- possessed, and the Family Group ” in our own gallery holds a history of a couple of antagonistic temperaments united by life in common and the clasping hands of children. Lotto does not keep the personal expression out of even such a canvas as his “Triumph of Chastity ” in the Rospigliosi Gallery. His delightful Venus, one of the loveliest nudes in painting, flies from the attacking termagant, whose virtue is proclaimed by the ermine on her breast, and sweeps her little cupid with her with a well-bred, surprised air, suggestive of the manners of mundane society.

The painter who was thus able to unveil personality had evidently a mind that was aware of itself, that looked forward to a wider civilisation and a more earnest and intimate religion. His life seems to have been one of some sadness, and crowned with only moderate success. He speaks of himself as ” advanced in years, without loving care of any kind, and of a troubled mind.” His will shows that his worldly possessions were few and poor, and that he had no heir closer than a nephew ; but he leaves some of his cartoons as a dowry to ” two girls of quiet nature, healthy in mind and body, and likely to make thrifty housekeepers,” on their marriage to ” two well-recommended young men,” about to become painters. His sensitive and introspective temperament led him to prefer the retirement and the quiet beauty of Loreto to the brilliant society of which he was made free in Venice. ” His spirit,” says Mr. Berenson, is more like our own than is perhaps that of any other Italian painter, and it has all the appeal and fascination of a kindred soul in another age.”


Palma Vecchio.

Bergamo. Lochis : Madonna and Saints (L.).

Cambridge. Fitzwilliam Museum : Venus (L.).

Dresden. Madonna ; SS. John, Catherine ; Three Sisters ; Holy Family; Meeting of Jacob and Rachel (L.).

London. Hampton Court : Santa Conversazione ; Portrait of a Poet.

Milan. Brera : SS. Helen, Constantine, Roch, and Sebastian ; Adoration of Magi (L.), finished by Cariani.

Naples. Santa Conversazione with Donors.

Paris. Adoration of Shepherds.

Rome. Villa Borghese : Lucrece (L.) ; Madonna with Saints and Donor.

Capitol : Christ and Woman taken in Adultery. Palazzo. Colonna : Madonna, S. Peter, and Donor.

Venice. Academy : St. Peter enthroned and six Saints ; Assumption.

Giovanelli : Sposalizio (L.).

S. Maria Formosa : Altarpiece.

Vienna. Santa Conversazione ; Violante (L.) ; Five Portraits of Women.

Lorenzo Lotto.

Ancona. Assumption, 155o ; Madonna with Saints (L.). Asolo. Madonna in Glory, 15o6.

Bergamo. Carrara : Marriage of S. Catherine ; Predelle. Lochis : Holy Family and S. Catherine ; Predelle ; Portrait.

S. Bartolommeo : Altarpiece, 1516.

S. Alessandro in Colonna : Pietà.

S. Bernardino : Altarpiece.

S. Spirito : Altarpiece.

Berlin. Christ taking leave of His Mother ; Portraits. Brescia. Nativity.

Cingoli. S. Domenico : Madonna and Saints and fifteen Small Scenes.

Florence. Uffizi : Holy Family.

London. Hampton Court : Portrait of Andrea Odoni, 1527 ; Portrait (E.) ; Portraits of Agostino and Niccolo della Torre, 1515 ; Family Group ; Portrait of Prothonotary Giuliano.

Bridgewater House : Madonna and Saints (E.).

Loreto. Palazzo Apostolico : Saints ; Nativity ; S. Michael and Lucifer (L.) ; Presentation (L.) ; Baptism (L.) ; Adoration of Magi (L.).

Recanati Municipio : Altarpiece, 15o8 ; Transfiguration (E.).

S. Maria Sopra Mercanti : Annunciation.

Rome. Villa Borghese : Madonna with S. Onofrio and a Bishop, 1508.

Rospigliosi. Love and Chastity.

Venice. Carmine : S. Nicholas in Glory, 1529.

S. Giacomo dall’ Orio : Madonna with Saints, 1546. SS. Giovanni e Paolo : S. Antonino bestowing Alms, 1542

Vienna. Santa Conversazione, etc.