Rome Scuderie del Quirinale, until 12 June
Reviewed by David R. Marshall
The last big Lotto show was in 1998, but I suspect this one doesn’t quite match it. The illustrations to the introductory essays in the catalogue indicate the ones that got away. But even so, this is an impressive exhibition, mainly for the altarpieces. For those who do not know the Scuderie, it is the old papal stables on Piazza del Quirinale. It has two long and wide floors that once housed horses. It is one of the best Roman venues, as these spaces are roomy and flexible, although the transition between levels can be awkward. In this case the lower floor is devoted to large altarpieces. These are mounted above altar-table like structures on a plinth, which sets them at a good height and makes them easy to approach and view from the right distance; if necessary you can lean on the ‘altars’ and not trigger the alarms (the screech of which nevertheless goes off ever few minutes). These are placed at an angle, so you can look both ways down the length of the floor and compare altarpieces, aligned like theatre wings. The lighting is a curious system involving pairs of lights, one pair warm, the next cool, which shine up from the ‘altar’ space and down from a short ‘canopy’ above. This lights the altarpieces well enough, but the smaller easel paintings on the floor above are mounted above structures like extended washbasins, a bit rickety if you lean on them, which enclose these lights, which point only upwards. As a result the colour is washed out and uneven, brighter at the bottom than the top, and the paintings are hard too see clearly. This lighting completely negates the frames, which sometimes catch the light at the bottom or top centre, but are never evenly lit, which is a pity, since some had good period frames. As usual with Italian exhibitions the post-installation maintenance is poor, so that one painting had an orange-yellow spotlight on the bottom from a misdirected ‘warm’ spotlight pair. Since lighting is the single most important thing in an exhibition, it is a pity more effort is not put into getting it right.
Another gripe is the apalling extended labels, which were a good example of how not to do it. The font was bad enough – a serif fonts in small capitals – but the text (in Italian, with English translations) is the worst kind of Italian art-writing which is bad enough in Italian, but horrible in a literal English translation. Since when has a native speaker used the word ‘divulgation’, even if it is in the dictionary? They needed to be written in English from scratch, but their meaning may then have dissolved. There are the usual name-dropping quotes from old Italian heroes like Longhi or Arcangeli, most of which seem to be making the point that Lotto is as ‘good as’ someone else, like Caravaggio. The most humorous note was struck by the sponsor, the Italian state lottery system, or Lotto. The exhibition booklet had some advertisements showing paintings with imaginary exhibition labels, suggesting, for example, that the Laura in Valchiusa shows a women having winning lottery numbers poured down on her by an angel in a dream (Fig. 1).
One ought to be drawn to Lotto’s works for the luminous naturalism one expects from Bellini, but one gets side-tracked into his details and his eccentricity, which end up being more interesting. The exhibition opens with the Madonna and Child with Sts Peter, Christina, Liberale and Jerome (1505-05, no. 1) (Fig. 2), basically a Bellini pastiche, which feels weak because of it, especially the Madonna with her laboured face and chaotic, if intriguing and beautifully coloured draperies. But at this period his work becomes elivened by a slightly chaotic angularity, which is beginning to appear in the Bellini/Giorgione St Jerome type here, and is quite insistent in the Apparition of the Virgin to St Anthony Abbot and St Louis of Toulouse (1506, no. 2) (Fig. 3, detail). Here the Virgin is all sharp edges and refuses to turn the corner around to the back, which one might attribute to a desire to make her more remote (like the archaizing Madonna in Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto) except that St Louis of Toulouse is no different. St Anthony has a wonderfully wacky beard that sticks out conically, ending in an impossibly sharp point. Between them a rocky path into a superb terrafirma landscape. One wonders what Lotto would have been like if he had had a modern freedom to follow his inclinations. Did he need the rigid geometries of these traditional figure compositions to keep him on track, or did it hinder him? The question is worth asking because if he, like any Renaissance painter, is approached with an ahistorical eye, you tend to look at everything but what the painting is ostensibly about, and what the patron wanted you to see.
Moving on to the S. Domenico Polyptych (1506-08, no. 3) we find the most accomplished of this Belliniesque pale, and here portrait-like naturalism goes a long way beyond Bellini and keeps both eccentricity and religion at bay. The grim face of St Flavianus speaks beyond history and cultures, as does St Vitus, with his superbly rounded face and double chin, eerily naturalistic armour, and multicoloured ribbons, like milk-bar door strips without the blowies (Fig. 4 detail).
But eccentricity develops, and manifests itself both spatially and colouristically. Spatially the little Stoning of St Stephen (from the predella of the Pala di San Bartolomeo (1613–16, no. 6c) (Fig. 5) is intriguing. Some figures are seen from a high viewpoint, and the ground seems tilted up to the right and viewed through a convex lens. Everything tends to sweep up from the leaping dog at bottom centre, the angle of which is picked up by the rightmost stoner, who begins a sequence of raised arms with stones that spins the movement up around and down to St Stephen. However, before the stones and our gaze reach him and subject him to a suitable suffering, they are distracted by the pair of soldiers at the left, who seem like kissing couples. The whole looks delightfully unstable, and seems not to be really about St Stephen.
The Recanati Annunciation (1534–35, no. 13) (Fig. 6) is of course, is one of the showstealers, along with the Accademia Carrarra Mystic Marriage of St Catherine. It not so much the slightly crazed Madonna, or the Angel, with his exaggerated Mannerist spatial organisation (like all Lotto’s angels, he is pure type, without any portraitlike naturalism) — whose right arm and hand serve the multiple functions of greeting the Madonna, helping to prop up the loggia post, and grasping his wingtip — as the void down the middle. One is aware of the figures on either side, but one looks at the middle. One’s gaze starts with the shadow of the angel, leads on to the crazed cat (I recommend the fridge magnet) and ends in the Carapacciesque furnishings. I found the little stool with the hourglass (Fig. 7) to be quite the most interesting thing in the exhibition. It has the hypnotic simplicity of Shaker furniture, but without its Puritanism: the curves of the cutout of the lower edge are too cursive and baroque for that.
After that, there is nothing for it but to lose oneself in the details. The crazed cat recurs, but, but not so often as rose petals. The best of these are in the foreground of the Madonna of the Rosary (1539, no. 15) (Fig. 8, detail). Three putti are tossing rose petals out of a tub of water. One has tossed a huge lump of them forward, across the cloak of St Dominic, where they have congealed in midair. The physics of all this seems a little strange — there are more than would fit in his hands, and where did the water go? — but intriguing nonetheless. Another fabulous details is the head of the sheep in the Adoration of the Shepherds (1530, no. 31) (Fig. 9, detail) which is being offered to the Christ child, who rather unhygienically grabs it, just managing to not poke out its eye. Here again we find extraordinarily lifelike portraits of the shepherds, contrasting with the generalised feature of the angels.
The most interesting details are often landscapes, and sometimes gardens. In the Commiato di Cristo dalla Madre (1521, no. 24) (Fig. 10, detail) Lotto shows a meticulously rendered hortus conclusus at the back of a courtyard seen through an eerie colonnade. The entrance is simply two posts with an entablature with simple wooden mouldings and balls marking the posts. On either side is a simple lattice enclosing square plots on either side (and presumably two more at the back) with single cypresses. In the middle of it all is a cross-shaped trellis tunnel with a dome at the crossing. (And there is another extraordinary portrait here, the aquiline Elisabetta Rota, complete with lap dog.)
But the finest details are in the little allegories, especially the Allegory of Virtue and Vice (1505, no. 50) (Fig. 11). This gets four pages of 6 point 4-column commentary in the catalogue, but rather than answering the question of what it is about, it is more interesting to ponder whether such painting is possible today. This is the kind of work where the compositional and institutional structures of the altarpieces have been removed, which allows it to stand on its own feet. We know, or are told, that as a Renaissance allegorical picture, it must have had a specific iconography, or at least needs to be approached through a full iconological unpacking, and that other readings are unhistorical. Yet how many people viewing it can be bothered with this? Some people while I was there were trying to decode it with the help of the label, which was the traditional one identifying it as an Allegory of Virtue and Vice, even though that is not what the catalogue was arguing, and did so nimbly enough, although finding only a couple of points that fitted. But most people surely approach it as a picture that asks questions because it does not make sense. The little putto running up the road with wings on his back may suggest a surrealist approach: an interest in visual strangeness for its own sake (Fig. 12). For others, unhistorical associations may come to the fore, such as the proto-William Blake Nebuchadnezzar at the left, complete with crouching pose and compasses in hand (Fig. 13). The Satyr with vases and amphorae can prompt a reading as pure, if idiosyncratic, still life (Fig. 14), while the cluster of objects neatly arrayed below the shield are obviously meaningful, but bafflingly so (Fig. 13). Other features assert their meaning in an obvious iconographic way, namely the shield and broken tree with one living branch. Here is where succinct extended labels are needed: please just tell us the most accepted account of the obvious features, and a few hints about how to approach the rest. But if a neo-Lotto were to paint this today, could it be done? To construct a verbal program and illustrate it no longer seems worth doing; but surrealist Freudianism is equally dated, which leaves the collage technique of setting up juxtapositions that are suggestive, and leave it to the viewer to take it from there. But I don’t think starting from there you would end up here.
Finally, the portraits. As I have mentioned, what brings the altarpieces alive is often the portraits, but the sections of the exhibition devoted to portraits were a bit flat. Some of the best weren’t here, and others seemed a bit routine. The perhaps over-familiar-from-reproductions Portrait of Andrea Odoni from Hampton Court (1527, no. 38) (Fig. 15), while impressively composed, was rather worn and unpleasant close up. The Portrait of an Architect (Jacopo Sansovino?) (c. 1536, no. 43) (Fig. 16) is much more likely to be Sansovino than the portrait from a private collection exhibited in Melbourne in 2000, which is probably Antonio da Sangallo the Younger. Perhaps the best was the Portrait of a Young Gentleman (Cristoforo Rover) (1532, no. 40), and not just for the rose petals (Fig. 17).
© David R. Marshall 2011