THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL VI. Lorenzo Lotto, Giovanni Battista Moroni, Jacopo Bassano

Other excellent artists painted in Venice contemporary to the masters of the Venetian painting school, from the days of Giorgione to the end of the XVI century. These painters have been considered as stars of a second magnitude compared to those we have previously discussed, but that, seen within this phenomenon of the evolution of Venetian painting of the 1500’s, they were endowed with great and very individual talent. One of them was Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480 – 1556/1557), who although had been born and trained in Venice, worked mainly in Rome. Born in 1480, Lotto kept a young and sentimental spirit throughout his life, and apparently because of this he seemed to have grafted into his artistic soul something of Giorgione’s aesthetic finesse.

Portrait of Andrea Odoni, oil on canvas, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527, 104 x 117 cm (Royal Collection, Hampton Court, London). The sitter, humanist and antique dealer Andrea Odoni, is portrayed amidst his collection of antiques. He sits at a green-covered table, wearing a voluminous and richly lined, fur-collared coat. His head, inclined a little to one side, is framed by his beard, and by his dark hair. Gazing at the spectator, Odoni has placed one hand on his chest in a gesture of “sincerità” (here interpreted as reverence or deference), while his other hand holds out a small, possibly Egyptian-inspired statue to the spectator. His antique cabinet room is simply furnished: against the whitewashed wall, the statues seem to have developed a life of their own, especially on the right where the shadows are deeper. To the left, Antaeus is seeing wrestling with Hercules, while a statue on the right, from the Vatican Belvedere court, shows a headless Hercules with the skin of the Nemean lion. On the far right there’s another Hercules, a “Hercules mingens” (the Classical hero as “Manneken Pis*“), before a well, over which a female figure, perhaps Venus, is leaning. Classical antiquity seems to be revived in the figure of a huge head emerging from under the table-cloth: this is the head of Emperor Hadrian, while the much smaller torso of a Venus appears to nestle up to the large head. The small statue in Odoni’s hand, reminiscent of Diana of Ephesus, indicates the artist’s and sitter’s interest in Egyptian religion. At Venice, Lorenzo Lotto’s place of birth, there was then a widespread interest among humanists in Egyptian hieroglyphics as a source of arcane knowledge and divine wisdom.

Lotto traveled for many years, painting and learning. In Rome, he saw how Raphael‘s school imposed his academic formulas; in the Adriatic provinces he witnessed the rare phenomenon of beauty of Correggio‘s paintings… When Lotto returned to Venice in 1529, he was too old and experienced enough to be influenced by any other artist. In consequence, the triumphs of Titian, who was then at the height of his fame, couldn’t divert him from his path. But the one artist Lotto could never forget was Correggio, and that is how through Lotto’s work, something of the great sentimentality and poetic chromatic vibration of the master of Parma entered the Venetian school, and this is fully revealed many times in the magnificent portraits he executed. The tenderness of feelings in Lorenzo Lotto’s painting is a reflection of his infinite goodness, of his resistance to adversity in life, and of the kindness that his contemporaries admired in him. Even the devilishly malicious Pietro Aretino, in a letter to Titian who was then in Augsburg painting the portrait of Charles V, said that “Lotto was good as goodness itself”. However, this doesn’t exclude that, like all great introverts, alongside serious moralistic concerns, Lotto showed an admirable ability to appreciate comical details even in mystical and dramatic scenes. The long and hard-working life of Lorenzo Lotto ended in 1556 or 1557 in the sanctuary of Loreto, where he had entered to serve as a layman four years earlier.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, oil on canvas, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523, 189 x 134 cm (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo). This painting was commissioned by Niccolò Bonghi, patron of the house of the painter. He is depicted in devotion in the left background. Part of the painting, which represented a cityscape on the window in the right corner, was vandalized by French soldiers during the French occupation of Bergamo in 1527-1528. The painting depicts the Mystical marriage of Saint Catherine, her symbolic chaste union with Jesus in which the saint has renounced to terrestrial marriage in order to live a consecrated life. As typical of the iconography, Jesus is depicted as a child placing a symbolic wedding ring on the finger of kneeling St. Catherine. In her hair, Catherine wears an apparent crown with wheel-like spokes, alluding to the instrument (wheel) of her martyrdom. Behind her an angel kneels. A palm frond, symbol of martyrs, protrudes from St. Catherine’s gown below. Behind the Virgin, on the ledge on the wall, hangs an oriental rug. The mystical marriage of St. Catherine was traditionally echoed in the sacrament of consecration of nuns into a religious order.
Portrait of a Young Man with an Oil-lamp, oil on wood, by Lorenzo Lotto, ca. 1506-1510, 42 x 36 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Lorenzo Lotto has been considered as the true inventor of the Renaissance psychological portrait. The visual means chosen by Lotto to portray mental states was less one of analytical matter than its opposite: enigma. Lotto’s tendency to present the spectator with riddles is seen in his mysterious symbolism and by his frequent use of emblematical or hieroglyphic allusions. Here Lotto introduces us to a young man wearing a round black beret and a buttoned, black coat. His physiognomic features, his powerful nose, searching grey-brown eyes, brows, make the spectator to view him almost with suspicion. But the new element introduced here which is disquieting for the viewer, beyond the waves and folds of the white damask curtain that serves as background, is the apparent breeze that appears to have blown the curtain aside to the right, and in the darkness, we are presented to a barely noticeable flame of an oil-lamp. The enigmatic presence of the lamp may be an allusion to the passage in St. John: “lux in tenebris” (‘a light in the darkness’). In this painting, scholars have pointed to the influence of Giovanni Bellini and/or Antonello da Messina. The presence of the lamp has also been interpreted as an allegory of the human life’s shortness, due to the dimness of the flame. The sitter has been identified as Broccardo Malchiostro, the young chancellor of the bishop of Treviso, Bernardo de’ Rossi. The decoration of the white damask fabric in the background can be interpreted as a charade, the fabric includes decorations with the carduus plant, “Brocade + carduus = Brocardus” a pun on the sitter’s name.

Another painter born in Albino, near Bergamo (actual Lombardy), younger than Lorenzo Lotto, was the unsurpassed portraitist Giovanni Battista Moroni (ca. 1520-1524–5 February 1579). We know little information about his life. It has been said that Moroni studied in Titian’s workshop, which is based only on the commonly accepted tradition that Titian praised Moroni’s portraits saying that they were very vivid or true to life (‘veri‘). And indeed, Moroni has left us a series of portraits that still today have a life of their own. In most of the most important museums in Europe, the visitor can suddenly meet one of these true people portrayed by Moroni, which amaze because of their realism. In his old age, Moroni was tempted with commissions to make religious compositions and even he wanted to paint a Last Judgment, on which he was working when he died in 1579. Ultimately, with these intellectual paintings Moroni only managed to demonstrate how the desire to bend or conform to the demands of the public can harm the production of an artist.

Portrait of a Lady (‘La Dama in Rosso‘), oil on canvas, by Giovanni Battista Moroni, ca. 1556-1560, 155 x 106.8 cm (National Gallery, London). Pink or orange-reds fabrics were fashionable in mid-sixteenth century Italy. The bright colors of the sitter’s garments are complemented with the pinkish-orange circles of Verona marble set in the floor. Moroni has placed particular attention in carefully depicting the luxurious materials of the lady’s clothes. She holds an unusual-shaped fan. The sitter was the Contessa Lucia Albani Avogadro, wife of Faustino Avogadro.
The Tailor, oil on canvas, by Giovanni Battista Moroni, ca. 1570-1575, 97 x 74 cm (National Gallery, London). By the 1570s, the fashion for portraiture wasn’t only a privilege for nobility, but spread to the professional classes. Moroni here portrayed a tailor resting during his work, but in its subject-matter, the sympathetic depiction of the sitter remains unique. It has been suggested that Moroni executed this painting in exchange for services rendered, perhaps a suit in that fashionable Spanish black coat shown by the tailor. The tailor wears a less stylish costume of red and buff, albeit with a Spanish ruff. The realism of the painting, the description of objects, details of his costume, physiognomy and expression, are a complement to its artful geometric structure. The three-quarter length format is justified by the table. Instead of creating the usual barrier between sitter and spectator, Moroni presented a friendly link between them through the angle at which it is set, and because of the unaffected way it enables the tailor to pause before cutting his cloth in order to address the viewer. The tailor has been identified with a member of the Fenaroli family.

Jacopo dal Ponte (ca. 1510 – 14 February 1592), called Jacopo Bassano (from his birth place Bassano del Grappa near Venice), is the artist who closes this cycle of 16th century Venetian painting. Influenced by Tintoretto and Lotto, he was the head of a local small school whose most prominent members were his sons Francesco and Leandro; its characteristics were the special treatment of light and shadow and the reiteration of pastoral themes with shepherds and domestic animals, all presented with determined naturalism. Such was the importance of these elements in their works that they ended up being the only excuse for Bassano’s painting. Thus they painted series illustrating the four seasons, the farm work, the entrance of Noah in the ark, etc. This school made an effort to portray the physical qualities of hay, trees, animals and their fur, etc. Its naturalism and provocative materialism was harshly criticized by the romantics of the 19th century. Théophile Gautier, for example, said in his “Journeys in Italy” (1902) that he’s horrified by Bassano’s paintings and calls them “boring rubbish painting”. Today our opinion has changed dramatically. The Bassano indeed reflected the trends of their time in literature and music: great epics like “Orlando Furioso” (1516) by Ludovico Ariosto were no longer written; at the end of the 16th century the people was reading the pastoral poem “Arcadia” (1480) by Sannazaro published back in 1501 in Venice which later became a bestseller, in Italy alone more than 66 editions were printed. Even the Bassano were rustic authors of bucolic poetry.

Animals boarding Noah’s Ark, oil on wood, by Jacopo Bassano and workshop, ca. 1579, 100.9 x 120.6 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This painting was Jacopo Bassano´s first depiction of the passage from Genesis 6:20 and the only one in which the theme is treated separately rather than as part of a series depicting the story of Noah. Bassano respected the biblical text in terms of the number of people who were saved (Noah, his wife and his three sons with their wives), but took liberties with the animals. In some cases, such as the dogs and cats, he included more than two. He also failed to give priority of the lions in entering the ark, as they are preceded by birds and deer. The use of a ramp to enter the Ark, a common feature in illustrated bibles since 1480, was an element that allowed for a better representation of the full variety of species gathered around.
The Purification of the Temple, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Bassano and workshop, ca. 1580, 161 x 268 cm (National Gallery, London). This painting, dating from the last decade of Jacopo Bassano’s life, is full of drama and movement. The passage of the ‘Purification of the Temple’ is described in all the Gospels: Christ arrives at the temple to find it full of money-changers and traders. Goats, cows, and sheep are being offered for sale. In Bassano’s interpretation, a woman in a yellow dress kneels beside baskets of doves and eggs. A man carries a chicken and a rabbit tied to a staff. Christ first appears in the left foreground lashing a whip in the air to clear out the crowd and the livestock, who run towards the door. The frightened boy with his hands raised expresses the drama of the moment. A spaniel dog leaps away over a pile of bowls at the lower right corner. The money-changer grasping his carpet-covered table on the right has often been thought to be a portrait-caricature of Titian, a way of Jacopo Bassano to make a statement about the senior artist’s love for money. The chief priests and scribes watch in indignation from a raised platform on the left. Christ appears a second time in the far background, healing the blind and the lame. Bassano returned to the subject of the ‘Purification of the Temple’ many times during his career. As he had a special interest in painting animals, Saint John’s account of the event must have been the most appealing to him. It was unusual for other artists of the time to give such prominence to cattle, sheep and goats in depictions of this particular scene.
Two Hounds, oil on canvas, by Jacopo Bassano, 1548-1549, 61 x 80 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This painting was commissioned in October 1548 by the patrician count Antonio Zantani, a diplomat with a broad humanist education. Bassano was famous for his depictions of animals, a subject he always paid special interest, and shows here particular care in depicting furs and gestures. According to Ridolfi, Bassano used to place life-like images of vipers and other creatures painted on cardboard among the plants in his herb garden in his native Bassano, to surprise visitors and as an advertisement for his art. One of the hounds in this painting was copied by Tintoretto in his “Christ Washing His Disciples Feet”.

In the arts at the end of the 16th century, Venice seemed exhausted by so much effort, but it would still produce another brilliant stage in the 18th century during the course of another lavish artistic period right in the height of the Baroque.


Manneken Pis(from Dutch meaning ‘Little Pissing Man’, also known as puer mingēns, from Latin). A figure in a work of art depicting a prepubescent boy in the act of urinating, either actual or simulated. The puer mingens or manneken pis could represent anything from whimsy and boyish innocence to erotic symbols of virility and masculine bravado.