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Chapter 1. Mobility and the Problem of “Influence”

Chapter 1. Mobility and the Problem of “Influence”

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towns—Spilimbergo, Villanova, Mantua, Cremona, Piacenza, and Cortemaggiore among them—and

traveled to Alviano in Central Italy. Even Titian, so closely identified with Venice and the aesthetic

of colorito, came to that city as a child from the town of Pieve di Cadore and counted Ferrara,

Mantua, Urbino, Bologna, Augsburg, and Rome among his destinations. The majority of painters,

sculptors, and architects of the early modern period in the Italian peninsula could easily be classified

as itinerant, given that mobility, receiving commissions, and spreading one’s reputation often went

hand in hand. In Martin Warnke’s estimation, the history of Italian art from the fourteenth century

onward could be understood in terms of artists moving between two entities, the city-state and

princely court. The sack of Rome by Imperial troops in 1527 and the siege of Florence approximately

three years later destroyed artists’ careers and works of art. But these tumultuous events also

pollinated artistic styles—think of Giulio Romano in Mantua, Sansovino in Venice, and Polidoro da

Caravaggio in Naples—owing to artists fleeing Rome.3

Lotto, then, is not remarkable for having mobility as a leitmotif in his biography. What is unusual,

however, is the tone of volition, at times insistence, regarding an intention to depart from a particular

location. According to a contract dated 17 July 1517, Lotto stipulates that his apprentice,

Marcantonio Cattaneo di Casnigo, be prepared to follow his master in whatever city or land, be it

“throughout Italy or outside Italy, the Gallic parts, or Germany.” The artist repeatedly expresses his

intention to travel in a series of letters dated 1524–32 written from Venice to the governors of the

Consorzio della Misericordia in Bergamo. Most likely wishing to expedite completion and payment

for the intarsia panels he designed for the high altar of Santa Maria Maggiore, Lotto draws upon a

language of obligation and urgency. To take letters from one year, 1527: “I, having to go to the

Marche” (3 February); “time being wanting, I, having for some days to travel to the Marche to bring

my work to completion” (22 February); “it has become incumbent upon me to go to the Marche” (15

July). Almost a year and a half later, in November 1528, Lotto declares he might abandon Italy


Art historians have drawn a connection among three circumstances: Lotto’s perpetual and willful

mobility, his exposure to a plethora of regional stylistic idioms, and his proclivity to mutate his style

because of, or in some cases, in spite of, his physical displacement. Humfrey observes that “Lotto’s

extensive travels in the Italian peninsula meant that he had a wider experience of different pictorial

cultures than did the majority of his Venetian colleagues.” Some works display an interest in

Netherlandish painting, while others demonstrate Lotto’s scrutiny of Dürer, Raphael, and Leonardo.

Luigi Chiodi expresses a similar sentiment: “Antonello, Correggio, Carpaccio, Titian, Giorgione,

Raphael, the Lombards, artists from the Veneto, Northerners, Tuscans, Romans, archaic religious

painting, Grünewald, Altdorfer, Bellini, Melozzo, the Dutch, the Mannerists: was Lotto all of this?”

Alexander Nagel comments that Lotto’s work sheds light on “how the very question of center and

periphery took shape in the artistic culture of sixteenth-century Italy” and asks “what this question had

to do with the emerging historical and regional awareness of artistic tradition that marks the period.”5


These observations become more concrete if we examine them in relation to a selection of Lotto’s

works. In any diachronic cut through an oeuvre, we would hardly expect an artist’s style to remain the

same. What distinguishes Lotto, however, is his tendency to transform his manner of working even in

those paintings completed at relatively tight chronological proximity to one another. In those works

from vastly different periods, Lotto’s style remains markedly more elusive and difficult to categorize

according to region or school. It is not a coincidence that for the supreme connoisseur of the twentieth

century, the American art historian Bernard Berenson, Lotto posed an appealing challenge. As we

shall see through the following “motivated descriptions” of just a few of Lotto’s works, the artist’s

propensity to modulate his style can often, though not always, be understood in light of his change in

place. More important, focusing upon Lotto as an extreme case study of a traveling artist in relation to

his unruly style allows us to zero in on a more global issue. This artist’s approach to painting raises

the larger problem of determining how art historical thinking might assess and interpret the causal link

between the biographical fact of an artist’s travels and the effect of stylistic change. The proverbial

elephant in the room is one of the building blocks of art history—the concept of “influence” as it

pertains to mobility.

First to the works themselves: at the outset of his career Lotto would, as we might expect, strongly

adhere to the stylistic conventions of his native Venice. The paintings from this period testify to

Lotto’s training, in all probability in Alvise Vivarini’s workshop, and his awareness of stylistic

trends in the lagoon. These include a precise, almost lapidary definition of facial features, an interest

in landscape, and an exploration of tonality, light, and meteorological effects via the oil paint

medium. Take, for instance, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, a panel signed and dated 1506 (fig. 1.1).

To be sure, the fact that this work was executed not in Venice but in nearby Treviso raises the

question of Lotto’s activity in the “periphery.” All the same, Treviso is located only about thirty

kilometers to the north of Venice, about a day’s journey away, either by horseback on the ancient via

Terraglio or by barge floating on the Sile River that feeds into the lagoon. The sixteenth-century

architect Michele Sanmicheli compared Treviso to a limb attached to the body of the metropolitan

lagoon. Treviso was not so much the periphery, but rather an extension of the center itself, or to put it

another way, slightly “off-center.”6

Correspondingly, Lotto’s Trevigian panel might reasonable be described as Venetian. He follows

the fifteenth-century Venetian workshop practice of applying successive layers of oil paint upon a

well-gessoed panel. Lotto also adheres to the compositional formula deployed by his predecessors

such as Giovanni Bellini and Cima da Conegliano (fig. 1.2). St. Jerome, deep in penance and

meditation in his oratory, occupies the foreground. Behind him is the view toward relinquished

civilization. Through a number of compositional decisions, Lotto firmly anchors Jerome’s body and

book in the surrounding wilderness. These include the saint’s domelike head that resounds in the

boulder’s rounded ends and the open folios with their bindings which are the formal origins of the

fractures in the rock face.7

Of course, closer observation of the panel restrains the impulse to apply the regional label of

“Venetian.” For if by “Venetian” we mean the stylistic priorities of only those artists born or active in

Venice and the Veneto, then such a designation fails given Lotto’s recourse to the German artist

Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St. Jerome (1496) (fig. 1.3). But we might also expand the definition of

Venetian to include not only what was produced there, but also what was readily available via

transport of goods in Venice. This enlarged designation, then, would account, as Humfrey suggests,

for Lotto’s “small-scale Düreresque landscape,” due to its “sudden contrasts of scale,” “the breaks in

spatial recession,” and “jagged silhouettes.” Now the problem of Dürer’s activity and reception in

Venice is complex and cannot be delved into here. Dürer himself was present in Venice executing his

altarpiece Virgin of the Rose Garlands for the church of San Bartolommeo the very year Lotto’s

panel was completed. Suffice it to say that Lotto was not alone in employing Dürer’s landscape

formulas as model, a trend that corroborates the painter and art theorist Paolo Pino’s observation that

northern artists excelled at landscapes due to their exposure to the wilderness of their homelands. In

light of Lotto’s close examination of Dürer, his panel could loosely be considered a colored version

of the German artist’s engraving. In a practice not unlike watercolor applied to black-and-white

prints, it seems as though Lotto has applied delicate tonal transitions within the swerving contours of

Dürer’s incisions.8

However much Lotto’s engagement with Dürer complicates what we mean by “Venetian,” his

allegiance to that school of painting seems unshakable when compared to his version of the subject

executed approximately three years later during his sojourn in Rome (fig. 1.4). Retained is the

landscape background, albeit with the inclusion of St. Jerome adoring the cross, with its

anthropomorphic rocks and tree trunks that recall Lotto’s coloristic elaboration of Dürer’s engraving.

Yet in lieu of the Treviso panel’s dense vegetation are trees with feathery leaves and a sunlit rolling

countryside, all evocative of landscape backgrounds in Umbrian painting. Replacing the castle in the

first St. Jerome is a structure reminiscent of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Most dramatically,

instead of an emaciated ascetic, we confront a classicizing muscular saint. The figure testifies to

Lotto’s examination of Roman art, be it sculptures of river gods or, in the Vatican Palace, Raphael’s

Diogenes in the School of Athens or Sodoma’s vault paintings above. It is as though Jerome’s

Trevigian physique has now in Rome been inflated and swollen, transformed from mortified flesh to

monumental body.9

FIGURE 1.1 Lorenzo Lotto, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1506. Oil on panel (48 ì 40 cm). â RMN-Grand Palais (musộe du

Louvre) / Gérard Blot. Louvre, Paris.

FIGURE 1.2 Giovanni Bellini, St. Jerome Reading in a Landscape, 1480–85. Egg tempera and oil on wood (47 × 33.7 cm). National

Gallery, London.

FIGURE 1.3 Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, 1496. Engraving (32.4 × 22.8 cm). British Museum, London.

Many art historical narratives describe and implicitly favor those artists who, on arriving in

Rome, adapted their style according to the taste for all things antique. Raphael is often championed

for having developed his human figures from their harmonious proportions in Urbino to weighty, even

exaggerated monumentality in Rome. Lotto, however, stands in contrast to those artists who

relentlessly elaborated while in Rome the expressive possibilities of the monumental nude. He moves

at either extreme of standard classical proportions, at times exaggerating the figure, other times

restraining or abandoning it altogether. And it is no accident that these modulations occur in

conjunction with his comings and goings to and from central Italy, his activity in destinations at some

remove from artistic centers.10

To restrict ourselves for the moment to Lotto’s paintings of St. Jerome, take one of his depictions

of Jerome executed while in Bergamo around 1513–15 (fig. 1.5). In this devotional panel, Lotto’s

departure from Rome raises compositional opportunities for combining figure and background which

otherwise might be atypical. There can be, in other words, a geographical component to artistic

license. First, regarding the lunging Jerome, the shift from the calm monumentality of the seated figure

in the Roman version is utterly striking. Lotto stretches a protean Jerome in either direction, from

tensed toe to the hand grasping the cross. The position of the cerulean book echoing his cloak and the

diagonal landscape further emphasize the body’s pulled and elastic proportions. To be sure, Lotto’s

representation does not mark a complete rupture with classicizing prototypes: among his models for

his strung-out Jerome may have been one of Michelangelo’s reclining nudes painted above the

Erythrean Sibyl. The elongation of a nude figure is also a distinctive feature in Raphael’s Stanza

dell’Incendio, particularly in the muscular youth hanging from the wall in The Fire in the Borgo

(1514). More generally, St. Jerome could be linked to a victory encased in a commemorative arch’s

spandrel, an iconographic parallel that might lend triumphal associations to the saint’s ascetic


FIGURE 1.4 Lorenzo Lotto, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1509. Oil on panel (80.5 × 61 cm). Museo Nazionale di Castel

Sant’Angelo, Rome.

FIGURE 1.5 Lorenzo Lotto, The Penitent St. Jerome, c. 1513–15. Oil on panel (55.8 × 40 cm). Muzeul National de Arta al României,


And yet, less expected in Rome would be the coupling of Lotto’s elastic quasi-nude with this

landscape. For Lotto’s portrayal of this wilderness displays both stylistic regression and

incorporation of foreign models. Retained from the Roman panel is the architectural structure in the

distance which alludes to Castel Sant’Angelo and, by consequence, to knowledge of that city.

Nonetheless, Lotto reverts to the miniature-like handling of paint and delicate tonal transitions he

pursued in the Treviso panel to render the lush landscape. Still-life details such as the bird’s

skeleton, snakes, and the trompe l’oeil grasshopper exhibit his awareness of the emphasis placed on

such details in painting north of the Alps. It is as though Lotto, having located himself northward,

relocates in turn his style with Venetian and Lombard painting practice. This is not just the product of

stalwart artistic agency. Lotto’s stylistic modulation reflects most likely a dialogue with the

expectations of this panel’s Bergamask patron, still to be identified.12



These stylistic maneuverings, Lotto’s calibrations according to place, do they show verve, virtuosity,

or self-critique? The question becomes all the more pressing if posed in relation to the first major

work Lotto executed in Bergamo, an altarpiece commissioned by Alessandro Colleoni Martinengo

(fig. 1.6). With its architectural representation and disposition of saints, Lotto’s altar-piece marks a

return to ideas about composition that harken back to his Venetian training. Yet we also see the

tempering of the Central Italian idiom Lotto exhibited in the Roman St. Jerome panel as well as in

other works executed in the Papal States of the Marche. For in reverting to the compositional

formulas set out by Giovanni Bellini and his contemporaries, the Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece in

Bergamo diverts and redirects a prominent art historical narrative. This scholarly perspective sees

the major stylistic priority of sixteenth-century artists as reviving antique ideals of monumental human

form and proceeding later in the century to elaborate them into a mannerist aesthetic. To name but one

foreign artist in Rome who exemplifies this viewpoint, Sebastiano del Piombo’s work increasingly

exhibits his response to the heroic muscular human form proposed by Michelangelo. Lotto did not

entirely relinquish ideas gleaned from the antique he encountered in Rome and Central Italy. The

lurching figures that stone St. Stephen are citations from the Laocoön group, for instance (fig. 1.7).

But these references to the antique human form are located in the predella, absent from the

altarpiece’s main field. Furthermore, Lotto’s use of the crowning angels has been linked to the

agitated flying cherubs in the altarpieces of Fra Bartolommeo, possible evidence of a sojourn by

Lotto in Florence. Yet this “foreign” stylistic reference is accompanied with allusions to more local

models, based as they are on Milanese prototypes. St. Sebastian and the shadowy grottolike space

recall elements from Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. The coffered barrel vault and pilasters

encrusted with ornament are reminiscent of Bramante’s architecture in Milan or, more locally in

Bergamo, Amadeo’s jewel-like Colleoni Chapel, erected to honor the memory of Bartolommeo

Colleoni, the adoptive father of Lotto’s patron.13

FIGURE 1.6 Lorenzo Lotto, Colleoni Martinengo Altarpiece, 1513–16. Oil on panel (520 × 250 cm). San Bartolomeo, Bergamo.

FIGURE 1.7 Lorenzo Lotto, The Stoning of St. Stephen, 1516. Oil on panel (51.2 × 97.1 cm). Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti,


If forced to extract the principles governing Lotto’s stylistic change under the circumstance of

mobility, we might articulate them through the following dialectic. On the one hand there is the

geographic dimension of license. Arriving in a place as a foreign artist grants, or in fact demands, at

times the performance of novelty. Clauses “with skill and ingenuity” or “as best as he can” in artists’

contracts stipulate a certain degree of quality. But these phrases may also be interpreted as offering

artists room for pursuing pictorial solutions which differed, and surpassed, preexisting local models.

On the other hand of this dialectic is site specificity. By this term, I am referring to Lotto’s tendency

to couch his novelty in compositional settings native and particular to a painting’s destination. This

impulse toward spatial or topographic familiarity in turn has the potential to enlarge the work of art’s

field of references. Lotto himself commented upon artists’ practice of “understanding the place and

site and light and every other respect” for a commission. Thus in the case of the Colleoni Martinengo

altar-piece, there is the literal framing of frenetic angels in the process of rigging up banners and

wreaths within an architectural setting that draws upon Veneto-Lombard models. The otherworldly

manifests itself in the here and now.14

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Chapter 1. Mobility and the Problem of “Influence”

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