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The National Gallery provides a grand overview of Lorenzo Lotto, the 16th century painter with a still undefined image

The exhibition contains some stunning examples of Lorenzo Lotto’s approach to portraiture, which is to show the private rather than the public individual

Lorenzo Lotto, although one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, is still little known in the US. For the first time, the American public now has the opportunity of seeing fifty paintings (almost one-third of his entire output), from his early years around 1520 until the late paintings of the 1550s—from celebrated portraits to allegories and religious paintings. Even in Italy, where Lotto is almost a household name, it is forty years since so many important paintings by him have been gathered together.

“Lorenzo Lotto: re-discovery of a Renaissance master” is aimed at the general public. It does not set out to solve academic problems such as where Lotto’s painting began and where it ended, or what the exact sequence of his work might be. Nor are the paintings hung in such a way as to invite spectators to consider which are definitely by his hand and which are questionable. The exhibition was conceived by David Brown, curator of Renaissance art at the National Gallery, when the museum hosted the exhibition on Titian in 1990.

As described by Mauro Lucco, one of the exhibition’s three curators (the third being Peter Humfrey), “This is a show of fifty masterpieces chosen to illustrate Lotto’s career as clearly as possible. For example, at one point, he concentrated mainly on portraiture, but in order not to upset the balance of the exhibition by weighting this section too heavily, we have chosen to show only a small selection of portraits.

“I believe that the way we have articulated the show highlights the greatness of the artist, who in my view is the equal of Raphael. Although we may not have revealed any astonishing new aspects of Lotto’s genius, while we were laying out the show some significant adjustments were made to the sequence. The dates of some paintings have been shifted forwards or backwards, and thus some paintings have been shown to be much more significant to the art of their time than was previously thought.

“One exceptional piece, which shifts the relationship between a whole group of paintings with the same subject, is the ‘Sacra conversazione’ from the Camozzi Vertoli collection. This was not in the 1953 exhibition and was only known through bad photographs. Now it can be appreciated at its best and is certainly one of Lotto’s most surprising paintings, the Madonna’s brilliant red sleeve providing an extraordinary splash of colour. Because it is signed and dated we know that it was the first of a whole series, and came before the Boston painting dated 1521 and before the London painting of 1522”.

The exhibition opens with the portrait of Bernardo De’ Rossi from Naples, displayed with its allegorical cover (now in Washington); the Dijon portrait of a woman also has its cover (also in Washington).

Lotto’s approach to portraiture is to show the private rather than the public individual. There are some stunning examples in this exhibition: Andrea Odoni (1527), from the collection of HM Queen Elizabeth II, has been restored for the occasion and details can be seen that were obscured before (the hand that previously rested on his chest has now been shown to hold a crucifix) and might suggest a re-interpretation of the subject.

The religious paintings include the wonderful Christ carrying the Cross, from the Louvre, and the Virgin and Child with Saints from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

There are many paintings from Italian sources as well. From Recanati, in the Marche, comes the Annunciation. The group of paintings from Lotto’s Bergamo period form the central nucleus of the exhibition and the region of Bergamo is still the source of a number of extremely important pieces such as the altarpiece of the Santo Spirito. This has also been cleaned for the occasion and although it was already recognised as being of very high quality, it is a real revelation.

The exhibition is laid out in three sections, the first devoted to Lotto as a young man, the second to Lotto in Bergamo and the third to his remaining paintings. Lucco explains that Lotto’s greatest work was produced before 1530, and that thereafter a decline in quality is perceptible.

The catalogue is organised on the same lines: David Brown presents the artist’s youth, Mauro Lucco the Bergamasque period and Peter Humfrey the years from 1525 to the end. It is published by the National Gallery with Yale University Press. The exhibition is at the National Gallery of Washington until 1 March 1998; from 2 April to 28 June at the Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti, Bergamo and from 12 October to 11 January 1999 at the Grand Palais in Paris.