Lucina Brembati is the very image of the jolie laide. Thin brows, crooked nose, sideways smile. Not a beauty, but what fun she is with her furs and jewels. That dreary advice about looking in the mirror and taking off one accessory before you leave the palazzo? Lucina puts another six on.
Borrowed from Bergamo, Lucina is a highlight of the superb exhibition Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits at the National Gallery in London. Sitting for Lotto in around 1520, Lucina wears five rings, two necklaces, a pearl crown, an enormous bouffant capigliara headdress, and a weasel-skin stole with ears, eyes and teeth intact. I hope she won’t mind my calling her Lucina. She positively invites intimacy, allowing Lotto to include her name in a background rebus: a moon with the letters “CI” in its crescent. A cryptic clue: “ci” in “luna” makes “Lucina”.
At least Lucina is wearing her headdress, a doughnut confection of tufted wool and gold ribbons. In the case of poor Faustina in the Prado’s Micer Marsilio Cassotti and his Wife Faustina (1523), it’s the other way around: the wig wears the woman. She is bowed by its weight, under the expectations of her marriage. (The capigliara, incidentally, was invented at the court of Mantua by Isabella d’Este to conceal her hair loss, caused by the syphilis given to her by her husband, Francesco II Gonzaga. The caps became all the rage in the courts and towns of the Po Valley in northern Italy.)
Lorenzo Lotto was a sucker for stuff. He wrote of his intention to “rival” in paint the “silk clothes, headdresses and necklaces” of the newly wedded Cassottis. He is besotted with bodices, mad about mantles and doolally about doublets. He delights in the fashion for slashed sleeves with a wink of silk pulled through the cut.
Lotto’s female sitters are upholstered like pumpkins in dresses that billow, pucker and bunch. He dresses St Catherine of Alexandria (1524) in a little green jerkin over ruched and ruffled sleeves. His men are as puffed and pompadoured as his women.
The Protestant Martin Luther had a decided influence on men’s fashion. The Reformation rejected the effete and courtly style of the Renaissance for something more plain and muscular. Übermensch, or “superman”, shoulders came into fashion. Think of Jean de Dinteville on the left of Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors (1533) or of Holbein’s Henry VIII (c 1536). Call it the Atlas look.
In Lotto’s portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection, Odoni’s mantle takes up most of the painting. But however seriously Odoni wants us to take him, Lotto has the last laugh. Odoni’s collection of Roman statues are shown tomfooling behind his fox-furred back. The infant Hercules is urinating into Venus’s bathing basin, while she stares pop-eyed at an Apollo.
As you come out of the exhibition, go up the stairs and turn right to see the Giovanni Moronis in Room 12. Moroni’s men are more handsome, Lotto’s more lively. Were they in on the game? Or does Lotto make jokes at his patrons’ expense? Surely the sitter in his Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia (c 1530-33) knows how naughty she is? “Let no unchaste woman follow my example,” says the inscription below her hand, a reference to Lucretia’s suicide after her rape by Tarquin. You could believe it, except that Lotto Lotto makes his subject so, well… unchaste.
We know from his notebooks that Lotto wore suede boots, calfskin gloves and socks that laced at the knee. His tastes exceeded his income and he often bought de meza vita (second-hand) silks and wools. Towards the end of his life he wrote a doleful note in his will of March 25, 1546: “Art did not earn me what I spent.”
Lotto was born in Venice, around 1480, a contemporary of Giorgione, Palma Vecchio and Titian. He admired Bellini’s landscapes – you can, too, at the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing – and worked under Raphael in Rome. He painted in Treviso, Asolo and Bergamo and spent the last two years of his life as an oblate in the Santa Casa of Loreto.
His early sitters, such as in the Young Man (c 1500) and the Bishop de Rossi (c 1505), are cursed with potato-shaped faces. He gets the hang of likenesses later on. He is wonderful with hair from the beginning. Lotto paints the Young Man’s curls haloed with frizz. In the Virgin in Glory altarpiece of around 1506, St Anthony Abbot is permed to perfection. The Dominican Friar (1526) sports a five o’clock shadow on his dimpled, baby’s-bottom chin. Andrea Odoni has the sort of beard of which hipsters dream.
This is a show of thrilling tactility. Lotto makes you want to stroke, tousle and press your cheek against his paintings, weasel stoles and all.
Laura Freeman is a freelance writer and author of The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits is at the National Gallery, London (nationalgallery.org.uk) until February 10
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