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“Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance”

At the National Gallery of Art

to March 1

The importance of Lorenzo Lotto is difficult to distinguish from that of the collector, critic, and arbiter of taste Bernard Berenson, who wrote the first monograph on this 16th-century master. In fact, it would be more accurate to state that Berenson was the inventor of, if not Lotto himself, at least the criteria whereby a 16th-century painter would stand paramount today. That is, he defined the terms according to which a contemporary historical museum like the National Gallery of Art would mount its large Lotto show, now on display in the museum’s West Wing.

Berenson was a connoisseur, and he made Lotto into a master. The connoisseur’s aim is to assign works to authors, give them dates, and then make quality judgments, selecting the best work of an artist and period. The master, his mirror, is the producer of such objects, called (predictably) “masterpieces.” Because connoisseurs like Berenson were not immediately interested in context or in the role of the artist as a participant in his culture, the master became of necessity someone who, while involved in history, also transcends it, making work that is not for an age but for all time, stamped more by the individual than the period.

To see such terms as “master,” “masterpiece,” and “individual style” alive and operating in full force, one need only pass through the rooms of “Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance.” Here we see a painter who—because of the very fiat just outlined—conforms to the definition of the master. In the show, we look at paintings of religious subjects, from a moment of highly charged politics in Western history (really the crux of the Reformation and Counterreformation struggles), and see the works aestheticized to reflect the artist’s individual career: his “early period,” his “Bergamo successes,” his “maturity” and “old age.” But some of the catalog essays on such topics as patronage, by Louisa Matthew, and the religious crises of the 16th century, by Adriano Prosperi, let us know that there were strong historical forces operating in the period that left their marks on the paintings. These essays work in the opposite direction to Berenson’s ahistoricism, contextualizing the painter. In the end, it is left to us to decide whether to view Lotto in history and read his paintings as part of a political climate, or perhaps to adopt a less exaggerated version of the stance of Berenson and his aesthetic forebear, Walter Pater, who went so far in denying original religious context as to suggest that Botticelli’s Madonnas were actually bored by the Christ child.

I tend to opt for the former view. What is interesting is just how foreign the aesthetic stance would have been to the world that Lotto lived in. A fascinating thing about the Italian culture of this time is the variety of things that people did with art: They put themselves into it, they used it to plug their families, to register marriages, to pay off debts, to remind themselves to be pious, and to tweak the right emotional strings when required. In fact, the one thing they did not seem to do is treat art with the insular preciousness that is our normal attitude toward the gallery-housed object.

A Lotto painting replete with just this Renaissance functionality, in no way interfering with our appreciation of it, is the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, with the Donor Niccolo Bonghi. This is a painting that Lotto gave to his landlord in exchange, one researcher tells us, for a year’s rent. In it, he violated chronology, as is often done in the sacra conversazione genre, to include not only a fourth-century saint but the commissioner of the picture, Bonghi, who stares out at us from the upper left of the canvas. But what is really striking is the individual likenesses of the figures; they signal the crisis of the imagination in the early 1500s and the emergence of what some have bluntly called the “religious propaganda” of High Renaissance art that is the most salient art-historical development of the century.

In the previous century, paintings had shown physiognomies that were purposely left indefinite as an aid to devotion. The idea was to imagine one’s friends’ faces (devotional manuals actually recommended this) in the role of the saints. But in the cinquecento, things began to be spelled out in greater detail; faces took on definite resemblances, colors became less neutral—the work of the imagination was done for you in this first efflorescence of “packaged art.”

Lotto’s aestheticizing biographers will tell you that the artist was deep and inward, that his paintings were introspective and psychological, against the Titianesque epic spirit of his times. But leaving aside these necessary attributes of mastery, visitors to this show, and especially the happily uninformed, will find, perhaps, quite the opposite of brooding introspection and psychological depth. Instead, they will encounter a bright world of surface, a strong dose of the real as it pushes out from the canvas in 10 different versions of the Christ child, nearly as many St. Jeromes and St. Catherines, all of them carrying their gory, but highly visual, attributes.

Berenson fell in love with the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. He was drawn to Lotto as a sensibility at odds with his own time that reached across the centuries to address him in the 20th. I think we, on the other hand, are drawn more to the time than the man. His deep dislike of modern art notwithstanding, Berenson helped create the conditions under which it would be appreciated by suggesting that paintings were bearers of a trans-historical essence. Champions of modernism would interpret this as flatness. But now that modernism and the search for an essence beneath painting’s expendable conventions seem no longer to describe what it is in paintings that we enjoy, we might do well to go back to a painter like Lotto and see if what we really do value in his painting is the individual character that we attribute to his peculiar “master’s sensibility.” We might take from his individuality—and add to his interest.

The extreme version of this view is to claim that “Lorenzo Lotto,” the painter we abstract from the paintings, the sensibility we trace through its vicissitudes, the unique being that is more than the combined influence of Titian, Giovanni Bellini, and Alvise Vivarini, might not have existed at all. This has at various times been said of Giorgione. It provoked the amazing response from Pater (more or less) that if Giorgione didn’t exist we would have to invent him. It seems Pater is right: We are not ready to dispense with the guiding rubric of individual mastery, which is so useful in upholding judgments of quality. However, it is fascinating to look at the paintings of this show, which have satisfied so many diverse interests in history, fulfilled so many different functions, and see how they tax just these powers of invention. The construction of a Lotto je ne sais quoi—and it is a construction—that could link paintings as diverse as the Mystic Marriage and his early portraits is a tribute to the creative genius of Berenson as much as to the genius of his own quasi-creation, Lorenzo Lotto.