Lorenzo LOTTO | Portrait of Lucina Brembati [Ritratto di Lucina Brembati]

Lorenzo LOTTO
Venice 1460 /1500 – Loreto 1556/1557

Portrait of Lucina Brembati [Ritratto di Lucina Brembati] c.1518-23
oil on wood panel
52.6 (h) x 44.8 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Purchased from the Countess Degnamerita Grumelli Albani of Bergamo 1882

Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of a noblewoman of youthful appearance but no great beauty is rendered with a delicate balance between admiration and apparent irony. The sophistication of her dress conveys the sense of a high social level. Her fashionable Venetian headwear, capigliara, is scrupulously detailed—the fake hair plaited and secured with yellow silk bows, the coronet of pearls concealing the line of attachment to her own hair. The pearls at her neck accentuate her pale skin, emphasised against the rich black of her velvet dress and filmy white camisole edged in yellow ribbon with shell-shaped ornamentation. She wears a number of rings, an unusual hook-shaped pendant and a fur stole with a weasel’s head. The backdrop of red brocade is typical of  Venetian portraits.

When the Accademia Carrara purchased this work, the identity of the noblewoman had been forgotten, but it was noticed that one of her rings bears the coat of arms of the Brembati family.[1] The name Lucina was arrived at by inserting the letters ‘CI’ into the word luna [moon]. Lucina Brembati was also known through contemporary documentation. Her identity established, further curiosity about the portrait elicited some interesting propositions. There were name associations in the phrase dare alla luce (literally ‘to give birth’) and in the ancient goddess of birth, Juno Lucina—hence Lucina was signalling her pregnancy, with her right hand resting gently on her stomach in a gesture familiar from many other portraits.[2] Yet her left hand is touching the weasel’s fur, which would represent a threat to the pregnancy. In turn this hostile presence is neutralised by the gold hook pointing at the animal’s head. This hypothesis, however, is not confirmed by news of any children being born to Lucina Brembati in the period in which critics unanimously place the portrait, between 1518 and 1523. And the fur stole as an accessory is really very common in contemporary Italian female portraits—without the slightest connection to any pregnancies in the women concerned. Although the evocation of the lunar goddess does not recur in other portraits of similarly attired noblewomen, the reference here seems fully resolved by the pun on the subject’s name. The gold hook, however, was almost certainly (and less magically) an implement for cleaning the teeth, possibly considered a thoroughly modern status symbol, but in Monsignor Giovanni della Casa’s famous Galateo 1558,[3] a popular treatise on manners, it is denounced as a sign of lack of class.[4]

That said, it must be admitted that having courageously adopted the atmosphere of greater intimacy generally reserved for male portraits, and successfully exploiting an unusual night setting which—based on the wordplay previously mentioned—adds a mysterious depth to the image, Lotto seems to have produced one of the most convincing female portraits of the period.

Giovanni Valagussa

[1] Ciro Caversazzi, ‘Una dama bergamasca di quattrocent’anni fa riconosciuta in un ritratto del Lotto’, Bollettino della civica biblioteca di Bergamo, vol. 7, no. 1, 1913, pp. 23–25.

[2] See Augusto Gentili, ‘Lorenzo Datto e il ritratto cittadino: Leonino e Lucina Brembate’, in Augusto Gentili (ed.), Il ritratto e la memoria. Materiali, Rome: Bulzoni, 1989, pp. 155–58; Mauro Lucco disputes this in cat. 15, in David Alan Brown, Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco, Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered master of the Renaissance, Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 1997, p. 115.

[3] See chapter 29, English edition, R.S. Pine-Coffin (trans.), Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, 1958.

[4] Lucco, p. 115.