Some sixty years after the great connoisseur Bernard Berenson revived interest in the Italian painter Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556/7) in his pioneering study of 1895 and following the first great Lotto exhibition in 1953, he published his second monograph on the artist. In his words: “as illustrator he [Lotto] was more expressive, more psychological, more interpretative, more attentive to what was peculiar in situation and individual in personality than other Italian painters of his day”, an appraisal I fully reciprocate. One aspect frustrated Berenson: he could not explain how, after a gap of several years in the artist’s career from 1508 onwards, “[Lotto] emerged with his manner of painting surprisingly changed. From comparative dryness and sallowness, he has passed to a fluid vehicle and a gay, blond, almost golden tone.”
While Lorenzo Lotto’s life is extremely well documented with such unique personal documents as the thirty-nine letters he wrote in connection with the designs for intarsia for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, his will, and the spese diverse (the account books he kept meticulously during the last twenty years of his life and which also contain many details about his personal life and character), it was not until around the publication of Berenson’s second monograph that documents were discovered in the Vatican Corsini Library pertaining to advance payments to the artist concerning his work on the frescos in the papal rooms, the Stanze. Berenson’s mystery was solved: the artist had been called to Rome.
It has always been assumed that Lotto’s frescos in the Stanze were completely destroyed soon after they were painted because they were deemed inferior to Raphael’s. Nevertheless, there have been numerous attempts to identify Lotto’s hand in the Vatican or in other Roman decorations but his contribution has never been established convincingly. To these theories, the recent restoration of the Stanze added another although the catalogue of the last great exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome seems to ignore it. But for that exhibition every conceivable painting or altarpiece that could be removed safely or even unsafely was transported to Rome and since that would have been impossible with frescos it explains the lack of interest in Lotto’s murals, a fate they have suffered in most recent publications following exhibitions of the paintings.
Lotto’s Vatican commission
Lorenzo Lotto is not first and foremost remembered as a fresco painter but more for his highly individual religious paintings and his humane and empathic portraits. A native of Venice, something he stressed proudly all his life, he left the city for long periods to work elsewhere, mostly in the Marshes. The reason for this was presumably practical: once he had established his reputation there his popularity among the local nobility and clergy kept him busy throughout his life and even when he returned home for certain periods he shipped new altarpieces to these distant places from Venice. Yet to be commissioned for such a prestigious commission as the Stanze in the Vatican, even if he was to be part of a group of pan-Italian artists working under Raphael Santi, must also have been based on his work as a fresco painter. Unfortunately, no pre-Rome frescos by Lotto have survived.
The papal architect Bramante, who had been engaged in a project in the holy city of Loreto, a place of pilgrimage much favoured by Pope Julius II, and who may have seen Lotto’s altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in nearby Recanati is credited for having secured the painter’s commission at the Vatican. Bramante probably also saw frescos by Lotto in Treviso but these seem not to have survived. It has long been assumed that Lotto painted a pair of pages beside the tomb of Agostino Onigo in the church of San Nicolò, Treviso, but the majority of scholars have now rejected the attribution. Clearly Bramante was impressed with Lotto’s work, enough to recommend the painter to the Pope.
Lotto’s altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Recanati (1506-1508) displays the compositional influence of Venetian painters of that time, for instance Bellini’s Sacra Conversazione for San Zaccaria in Venice, completed in 1505. The Pietà in the upper lunette recalls Carlo Crivelli’s renditions of the subject in its intimate pathos while the dark background of the Pietà and some of the figures such as Nicodemus recall the influence of Dürer whose art had a lasting influence on Lotto.
Yet there is a determined individuality here, for instance in the contrast between the pervasive melancholy and the amusing detail of the child angels in the lower foreground, who seem startled by the entrance of St. Dominic.
The Stanza della Segnatura
In May of 1508 Michelangelo had started planning the frescos for the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and in the autumn of that year Perugino, Sodoma and Bramantino were engaged in Pope Julius II’s suite of private apartments. Probably shortly before, during the summer, Raphael, then a talented young artist, had arrived to paint the room that became known as the Stanza della Segnatura, at first largely with his own resources. He did not only establish himself at the highest artistic level in these frescos but also revealed his abilities for dealing with other artists and a demanding Pope while maintaining full control of the project.
Much of Lotto’s work in the Stanze della Segnatura has not survived, but it is certainly apparent that the left scene on the fourth or Jurisprudence wall is stylistically and technically different from Raphael’s fresco on the right side of the window. Consider, for instance, the lunette above the window where three of the Cardinal Virtues, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperantia, are evidence of Raphael’s accomplished and confident handling, a refined modelling of light and subtle shading of the idealised female figures.
The scene of Gregory IX approving the Decretals to the right of the window shows Raphael’s brilliance at portraiture: none other than Pope Julius II, wearing his famous beard that he had started growing after his defeat at Bologna, modeled for Gregory IX. In contrast with these scenes, the scene on the left side of the window, Tribonian presenting the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian, makes an altogether different impression.
Clearly another artist than Raphael or his close collaborators was at work here. Some suggestions that have been put forward, however, have been discarded. For instance, since the Pandects seemed to have reminiscenses of the “Venetian manner”, Sebastiano del Piombo has been put forward as a candidate. But del Piombo came to Rome only when the Stanza della Segnatura was finished and his involvement would only be tenable if the fresco had been repainted by him at a later date. Although del Piombo is known to have carried out restoration work on the frescos after the Sack of Rome in 1527 there appears to be no technical evidence that the mural is a different one than the original fresco of 1511.
Another candidate that was put forward is the French glass-painter Guillaume de Marcillat who is documented as working in the Vatican in 1510. The argument against de Marcillat is that he only started to work in fresco some years later in Arezzo and at any rate recent studies of his style exclude him as a candidate.
Raphael chose an unusual but symbolic event for the scene which shows the Emperor Justinian receiving the Corpus Juris Civilis (which included a digest component, called “pandects”) from his trusted jurist Tribonian. This was an essential part of Justinian’s Roman law consolidation effort of 533 AD which was seen as a monumental contribution to law and order throughout Europe in the 16th century.
Lorenzo Lotto’s involvement in painting the Pandects seems to fit more convincingly than that of other candidates put forward. Lotto was paid 100 ducats on 9 March 1509 for unspecified work in the “upper rooms of he pope next to the upper library” and received another 50 ducats on 18 September 1509. Both payments indicate that he had been working in the Vatican for some time as part of the team of artists including Perugino, Sodoma, Bramantino, Johann Ruysch and, of course, Raphael, brought together to decorate the new suite of papal apartments, the Stanze. Lotto’s fresco technique changed very little over time which makes comparisons between the Pandects and his later frescos possible, such as those in the Capella Suardi in Trescore, the Marian Cycle in the church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco in Bergamo and even the now much damaged frescos in Credaro.
The stylistic differences between the Pandects and the scene with Gregory IX on the other side of the window became more apparent during the most recent restoration. The Pandects appeared more damaged than the other frescos in the room, in part due to treatment with aggressive solvents in earlier restorations, but also because the volumes in this fresco seemed not to have been achieved through the modelling of different colours or tones of a colour (cangiante) as in the Virtues or the Approval of the Credentials but rather by the application of successive, fairly even layers of different tones one on top of another as becomes most evident in the faces. Due to this technique the upper layers of colour have fallen off in the course of time which resulted in losses that are more severe than in the other frescos which are less dependent on layering and therefore change less in depth. It is telling that the same losses occur in Lotto’s other surviving frescos executed in Trescore, Bergamo and Credaro.
The head of the Emperor Justinian in the Pandects, for instance, has been executed in thin, plain layers of colours finished with a few strokes of hatching added with the point of the brush – a technique that bears similarities to Lotto’s Suardi fresco cycle in Trescore or the badly preserved St Lawrence in Credaro where the flesh tones are built up with several layers of colour, one on top of another, with the contours giving the final definition.
Lotto employed broad areas of local colour in the figures in the murals at San Michele al Pozzo Bianco. Equally, in the Pandects, we see large panes of yellow, blue and dark red, contrasting with the far subtler colori cangianti (changing to a different, lighter, hue when the original hue cannot be made light enough or changing to a darker hue when the original hue cannot be made dark enough) employed by Raphael on the same wall.
Lotto seems to have treated frescos much the same as he would have a painting in oils, applying one layer over another so that, due to the chalky nature of the plaster, there is more wear than had he employed the medium to its full advantage. It was previously thought that the discrepancies in style between the Pandects and Gregory IV approving the Decretals was solely due to the first fresco’s poor state of preservation, and indeed some scholars have merely ignored this discrepancy, but given the techniques used it may point to Lorenzo Lotto as the author in which case we would have tactile proof of his involvement in the creation of the Stanze.
By any means that involvement would have been limited and Lotto cannot be credited as the inventor of the scene. Even though Raphael did not assume full command of the Stanze around 1513, his capacity to delegate was already apparent at the time when the Jurisdiction wall was painted. There is a compositional drawing in Frankfurt, largely executed in brush and wash and partially gone over in pen and ink, which relates to the figure group and which is thought to be a preparatory study by Raphael for the Pandects since there are significant differences between the drawing and the fresco such as the number of figures which was reduced in the latter, and changes to their hair and hats. At a later stage, with the composition fully worked out, Lotto would have been provided with a life-size cartoon for transferring the composition to the wall.
“A gay, blond, almost golden tone”
Coming back to Berenson and his wonder at the apparently overnight change in Lotto’s style after the years that could not be accounted for, the answer seems to be Raphael. Apart from the colour scheme of Lotto’s painting of the Transfiguration where, compared to his earlier work, the colours and overall tone are astonishingly bright, Lotto executed his Saint Vincent Ferrer in Recanati, of which only a damaged fragment survives, still deeply under Raphael’s spell. The Saint’s vigorous contrapposto and the unprecedented classical character of the flying angels seem a direct response to Raphael, while the ascetic appearance of the Saint is entirely in keeping with Lotto’s own artistic temperament. Even here he adds a quirky individualistic element: the putto on the left has his arms under the ascetic Saint’s robe.
In the next article we will move from the Stanza della Segnatura to the Stanza die Eliodoro to see whether it is tenable that some of Lorenzo Lotto’s frescos there survived, notably – for an artist who has been considered the painter par exellence when it comes to painting carpets – a carpet in fresco.
- Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto, an essay in constructive art criticism, 1895
- Emma Zocca, “Le decorazioni della Stanza d’Eliodoro e l’opera di Lorenzo Lotto a Roma”, Rivista dell’istituto nazionale d’archeologia e storia dell’arte 2, 1953
- Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto, 1956 (English edition)
- David Alan Brown, Peter Humphrey, Mauro Lucco et al, Lorenzo Lotto – Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, exhibition catalogue, 1997
- Peter Humphrey, Lorenzo Lotto, 1997
- Arnold Nesselrath, “Lorenzo Lotto in the Stanza della Segnatura”, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 142, No. 1162, 2000
- Arnold Nesselrath, “Lotto as Raphael’s Collaborator in the Stanza di Eliodoro”,
The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 146, No. 1220, 2004
- Giovanni C.F. Villa et al, Lorenzo Lotto, exhibition catalogue, 2011