Lorenzo LOTTO | Portrait of a young man [Ritratto di giovane huomo]

Lorenzo LOTTO
Venice 1460 /1500 – Loreto 1556/1557

Portrait of a young man [Ritratto di giovane huomo] c.1500
oil on wood panel
34.2 (h) x 27.9 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

Portrait of a young man is the least known of Lorenzo Lotto’s paintings in the Accademia Carrara. That it is not as famous as his other masterpieces is probably due to a subtle cerebral quality the work possesses. It is quite difficult to look at, with a disconcerting simplicity and purity of line that translate into a painting of remarkable formal power, almost perfect in the scrupulous rendering of every detail, yet achieving a luminous synthesis overall.

Against an almost black background, the smooth oval of a plump face not long past adolescence is almost angelic, except for the eyes with their equivocal expression. Beneath drowsy eyelids that seem to veil the young man’s gaze in a turbid sensuality, the eyes impose an enigmatic quality that is difficult to interpret. A black beret we can just make out against the background completes the geometric outline of the head. But its inclination creates a kind of incompatibility, making the perfect oval unstable on the equally perfect cylinder, almost a marble column, that is the neck. Framing the pale flesh tones, an abundance of curls like twisted copper shavings cascade from under the black cap. A slender balustrade in light-coloured stone closes the pictorial space. Two strips of slightly different widths, one with the light striking it and a darker one which appears perpendicular to the first, indicate a light source above the subject’s head.

The early provenance of this work is not known. It appears in catalogues of the Lochis collection between 1834 and 1858, surprisingly attributed to Hans Holbein.[1] In addition it is listed as a diptych with another Portrait of a young man (now attributed to Giovanni Bellini) also in the Accademia Carrara.[2] A more appropriate context is proposed by Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in 1871, who briefly notes: ‘this panel has Bellinesque and Antonellesque character’. [3] In 1891 Giovanni Morelli reaffirmed the painting’s Antonello-like atmosphere, but in the end opted for a possible attribution to Jacopo de Barbari[4]—a hypothesis perhaps justified by the vaguely Northern Italian cold, detached approach to this image. But mainly the suggested attribution comes from an inscription on the reverse of the other panel in the presumed diptych, where Morelli made out ‘Jacobus de…’ and assumed it to be the first part of the artist’s name. It is thanks to the truly remarkable perceptiveness of Gustavo Frizzoni in 1897 that the painting is recognised as the work of a young Lorenzo Lotto.[5] Since then there has been substantial agreement about the chronology, placing the painting among Lotto’s earliest works between the last years of the fifteenth century and the early splendour of the Cinquecento. We are reminded of a little-known passage by Giorgio Vasari who remarks in reference to Lotto, in the 1550 edition of the Lives, that ‘in his youth he was considered to be of fine complexion, clean-cut and immaculate’.[6] It is hard to imagine a better way to describe Lotto’s Portrait of a young man.

Giovanni Valagussa

[1] Hans Holbein (c.1497–1543).

[2] Lochis catalogues 1834, 1846, 1858: ‘Two portraits with the same number, half busts, without the hands. Paintings on coloured panels also varnished on the reverse’.

[3] Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, A history of painting in North Italy, London: J. Murray, 1871, 2 vols, vol 2, p. 89, note 3.

[4] A Venetian artist who worked in northern Europe, Jacopo de Barbari (c.1440–c.1515).

[5] Gustavo Frizzoni, ‘Le galerie dell’Accademia Carrara’, in Bergamo:
La Galleria Carrara; la Galleria Lochis; la Galleria Morelli
, Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche, 1897.

[6] GiorgioVasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostri: Nell’ edizione per i tipi di Lorenzo Torrentino, Firenze 1550, Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1986, p. 802.