The puerile joke hidden in a 16th-Century painting

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: a hazy hint of adolescent humour in the background of Andrea Odoni (1527), among the stand-out paintings on display at the National Gallery in London in an engrossing new exhibition devoted to the pioneering portraits of the 16th-Century Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto. Just behind the sitter’s left elbow, lurking in the shadows of the work’s upper right-hand corner, the portrayal of a pair of bronze statuettes has been staged to create a crude comic subplot within the broader drama of the oblong canvas.

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The larger of these two works-within-a-work is an antique sculpture of a bathing Venus, seen washing her leg. The Roman goddess of beauty and love has turned her head to one side, seemingly oblivious of the presence of a naked Hercules, who has sidled up to her unawar es. Wielding a shoulder-slung club with one hand while guiding an eternal flow of urine with his other, the god of strength and war, stumbling drunk, is overcome by nature’s call. He thrusts his pelvis forward towards Venus and appears to be filling the very basin in which she is now and forever bathing.

It would be easy to dismiss this puerile puppet show of free-standing statues as little more than a touch of Renaissance slapstick intended to lighten the mood of an otherwise overly serious psychological study of a collector who is lost in thought as he fumbles with a marble figurine of Artemis of Ephesus – a symbol of fertility and abundance. My own feeling is that this vulgar clash of idealised beauty and incorrigible debauchery – this mythic misdeed – serves a more important function than merely low-brow light relief, and may be key to how we understand Lotto’s imagination and his innovative portraits.

On the face of it

What is so significant about this painting, and about Lotto’s portraiture in general, is its ability to coax to the surface of a sitter’s countenance a compelling complexity of character – to inflect the features of his or her face with the whole spectrum of a subject’s rich, and even contradictory, personality: the good, the bad, and the naughty.

Never before or since has anyone brought out on the face more of the inner life – Bernard Berenson

Painted in 1527, when Lotto was in his late 40s, Andrea Odoni exemplifies the artist’s fascination with middle-class subjects – merchants, artisans, and clerics – whose physiognomies pulse not just with emotion, but with multivalent thought. “Lotto was, in fact, the first Italian painter who was sensitive to the varying states of the human soul,” according to the 19th-Century art historian Bernard Berenson, whose biography of the artist proved influential in grinding the lens through which subsequent generations would perce ive his work. Lotto’s portraits, Berenson insists, “all have the interest of personal confessions. Never before or since has anyone brought out on the face more of the inner life.”

But to what, exactly, is Odoni confessing in Lotto’s portrait? Working at the same moment that Titian overwhelmed observers of his paintings with his mastery of colour, Lotto sought to penetrate past the superficies of dazzling hues and dive deep into the psyches of his sitters – to access undulations of the mind by way of contours of the body. Like Leonardo, Lotto was an archaeologist of flesh, sensitive to every stratum and substratum of tissue, cartilage and bone. But Lotto goes further still to extend the sphere of self beyond the scope of studied muscle and scrutinised veins. The objects that orbit Lotto’s sitters are invariably more than illustrative of social status or metaphors of private fascinations. They are totems of their very being.

In Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (1524), for instance, painted three years before Lotto’s likeness of Odoni (and also on display in the exhibition), the gilt-edged tome that the lad grips tightly in his talons is more than an incidental prop. According to the sumptuous catalogue that accompanies the show, it is believed by scholars that the seemingly haunted young man is holding a copy of Petrarch’s Il Canzoniere, a volume of verse that throbs with the ache of unrequited passion. We, the observers of Lotto’s painting, are implicated in its edgy drama by having interrupted the youth who, moments before, was feverishly flicking in vain through the pages of Petrarch’s poems (the book’s ribbons are as dishevelled as his nerves) in search of consolation for his heartache. The book isn’t there to suggest the sitter’s erudition. It’s a sounding board of his lovesick soul.

Keeping count

Or take another example also on show, a work painted sometime between the Portrait of a Yo ung Man with a Book and the Portrait of Andrea Odoni: Lotto’s penetrating Portrait of a Dominican Friar (1526), for which Marcantonio Luciani, the treasurer of the convent of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, is believed to have sat for Lotto. What is it that Luciani, whose polished pate glistens like an inscrutable crystal ball, is scribbling in his ledger? To judge from the piercing quality of his eyes, which don’t so much follow yours around the room as interrogate your subconscious for secrets you thought you’d take to the grave, he’s the one keeping track of our worthiness to proceed into the hereafter.

For most Renaissance painters, the scatter of gold and silver coins that bestrew the desk would be sufficient to establish the friar’s station within the convent as the individual pulling the purse strings. But Lotto sees more and wants us to equate his sitter’s puncturing stare with the jab of keys and unlit votive candles (shorthand for the shortness of life) that jut towards us from his writing table like poked fingers. Depending on the friar’s calculations, or how he cooks his book, those keys will either swing wide the doors of heaven when the wick of life flickers out, or will keep them as tightly sealed as the friar’s own thin lips.

The works assembled in the show are a curiosity shop of psychic talismans through which the spirit of the artist’s sitters can be seen

From a tightly clenched scroll in the claws of a young bishop in a canvas from 1505, to a tangle of amber rosary beads that droop from the nervous knuckles of a murmuring penitent in a portrait from 1518, to the open jaw of draughtsman’s compass in Lotto’s late likeness of an architect in 1540, the works assembled into the four rooms of this show are a curiosity shop of psychic talismans through which the spirit of the artist’s sitters can be seen.

To help us appreciate the importance of the antique fragments Lotto has port rayed in his portrait of Andrea Odoni – a work that the catalogue insists marks “the emergence of a new iconographic category in Italy and in Europe”, that of the so-called “collector’s portrait” – the organisers of the exhibition have summoned a pair of classical sculptures akin to those portrayed in the painting. In addition to a 2nd-Century BC Roman marble figurine of Artemis of Ephesus, identical to the one with which Odoni fiddles in his outstretched hand, a white marble standing statue of a headless and armless goddess, leaning on a column, and similar to the fragmented female torso in the foreground of Lotto’s painting, is also on display.

Rather than reinforcing any sense of material heft in the statues depicted in the painting, however, these ancient objects, when placed in proximity to Lotto’s work, amplify instead the artist’s ability to melt even the most solid of substances into impalpable properties of mind and spirit. In Lotto’s han ds, these rugged relics dissolve before our eyes into the softness of memory. Though Odoni was himself a collector of classical objects, it’s thought that only the bust of Hadrian, peeking out from under the table, actually belonged to him. Their role in the consciousness of Lotto’s work must, therefore, lie deeper than mere possession.

Lotto’s decision to orbit the mind of the daydreaming Odoni with an array of portrayals of Hercules in various dispositions in the work – now crushing Antaeus to death (on the left side of the painting), now posing vaingloriously headless with a lion skin over his shoulder (behind Odoni’s head), now drunk and peeing in perpetuity – suggests that the central theme of his work may be a meditation on the dignities and indignities of life. Expunge from the surface of the canvas the fabricated farce of Hercules crudely defiling the basin in which beauty cleanses itself, and a crucial layer of amusing admonishment would disappear. Life is both heroic and absurd, tragic and funny: Lotto was one of the first painters fully to commit himself to accessing the broad scope of psychological truth.

Lotto is at the National Gallery in London from 5 November 2018 to 10 February 2019.

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