National treasures – Lotto: Portrait of Giovanni della Volta…

Nige continues our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

The National Gallery is not short of fine Venetian paintings, having a clutch of great Titians (including the ruinously over-restored Bacchus and Ariadne), and glorious Veroneses and Tiepolos, all full of sumptuous colour, painterly verve and joie de vivre. And then there are four paintings by Lorenzo Lotto, a very different kettle of fish…

Lotto is a strange painter whose pictures are full of edgy mystery and anxiety. He seems to have been a strange, forbidding man too, who, despite his recognised talent, could not for much of his career make a living in Venice.

One of the National’s four Lottos is the Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with His Wife and Children. What is going on here? The merchant and his wife stare at us out of the picture with troubled looks, ignoring their rather stylised children. The colours, especially of the clothes and that oriental carpet on the table, are sumptuous and thoroughly Venetian, but the atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the composition remarkably awkward.

Hands dominate – the couple’s right hands rhyming with each other, the putto-like son’s hands reaching up for the cherries his father is abstractedly offering him, while the mother absent-mindedly offers her daughter cherries (symbolic of fertility) in her cupped hand. This arrangement is the most startling element of the composition, with the mother leaning in towards the table, but not resting her hand on it – the hand that the eye expects to be hers, taking her weight, is her daughter’s, reaching into the bowl. Behind the family group, a serene Giorgionesque landscape offers a bit of calm and light, but not enough to change the prevailing mood of this strange and haunting family portrait.

You can now see it and the National’s other Lottos in the Central Hall, at the top of the main staircase, which is handy. All of them are worth long examination, but their mysteries seem impenetrable.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

4 thoughts on “National treasures – Lotto: Portrait of Giovanni della Volta…

    December 6, 2010 at 08:33

    Thanks for getting my brain going so early on a December morning, Nige. Yes, hands seem to be everywhere, but the daughter seems to be doing what all kids seem to do at that age – take what is offered with one hand, whilst the other is grabbing the same offering from another source. The spooky part, for me, is the younger child (a boy I think) at the bottom of the picture who, being almost naked, is surely too young to stand, and be able to stretch out for the cherries offered by dad?

    December 6, 2010 at 09:45

    I have a pain in my side
    Mum has a pain in her side, Dad
    Do you have a pain in your side dear.
    It’s only wind, got any Rennies.

    The juxtaposition of the three central figures is near perfect, I would get the train down and visit the gallery but there aren’t any.

  3. Brit
    December 6, 2010 at 09:53

    It is a seriously odd picture, isn’t it? As you say, Nige, the mystery is impenetrable. Or perhaps there isn’t a mystery and Lotto just liked the odd angles of the composition.

    One thing that does strike me about it is that all the family members seem to be on the same uncanny ‘wavelength’ as each other – as if they’re a closed circle, in opposition to the world. It’s in the eyes and the hands.

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