Lotto’s Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527)

Lorenzo Lotto has long been recognized as an artist with esoteric tendencies. Several scholars have recognized his "deep Christocentricity" and at least one has recognized alchemical emblems.1 It is no surprise then that many of his scenes, even some portraits, confuse ordinary visual perception. For him, a direct copy of the exterior world would have been meaningless or, worse, misleading. Despite this perceptual confusion, Lars Olaf Larsson correctly identified the portrait of the collector Andrea Odoni, below, as an "allegory of artistic creativity" though saw it from Odoni's point-of-view, not the artist's, as a balance between "fecund nature over the decaying fragments of classical antiquity." An American scholar agreed with Larsson but thought that while Odoni wanted to express his "passionate devotion to art....his final preference is for nature."2 What they agree on, or cannot deny, is this: it is a picture about art. Given that all poetic paintings are about art, such agreement is rare. 

The portrait is thought to represent Andrea Odoni, an important collector of antiquities in Venice.3 He is said to stand in a room surrounded by ancient fragments and in his hand holds a statuette of Diana of Ephesus, a deity of fertility. Under the tablecloth is a marble head of the Roman Emperor Hadrian whose curly locks and soft features have been said to echo those of Odoni himself.4 Why does Odoni resemble Hadrian and why did Lotto include antiquities that were not in Odoni's collection?5 A conventional storyline cannot explain this.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lotto, Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection, Hampton Court.

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What has not been noticed is that Emperor Hadrian also bears a marked resemblance to Lotto's own self-portrait (far left). Thus Odoni's appearance echoes both Hadrian's and Lotto's.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Self-portrait of Lotto
R: Detail of Hadrian's head (rotated) from Lotto's Portrait of Andrea Odoni

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As with many other "portraits" surveyed here, we are not looking at a portrait but at an image in the artist's mind of this "portrait's" conception. Thus, out of the artist's head, depicted as Emperor Hadrian under the tablecloth, emerges the figure of a famed connoisseur of antiquities, an aspect of Lotto's own creative self, his imaginary museum. Not only is the tablecloth green, the color of fertility, but his alter ego as Odoni holds a goddess of fertility. The twilight mood also suggests Lotto's mind and would naturally have been associated in the sixteenth century with melencolia, the prototypical artistic temperament.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lotto, Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527)

Click image to enlarge.

As with all important paintings, there is more to explain. Nevertheless, unless one has a correct understanding of the basic composition, all attempts at interpretation are a waste of time. Lotto, who considers his mind at its creative peak as imperial (Emperor Hadrian), depicts his imagination as the studio of a grand Venetian collector of antiquities who, in creating paintings, pieces together fragments of older art scattered around his mind like broken sculptures. It does not matter that they were not in Odoni's collection; they were and are in Lotto's memory. In addition, Odoni's open hand, facing and touching the fur on his coat, is a sign that he "paints" himself, the fur suggestive of brush-hair.  Thus we see Lotto's portrait imagined as the mental process of its own conception with Odoni as an alter ego of Lotto. As such, it joins the canon of great portraits as yet another example of how every painter paints himself.  

Note: For two later observations I wrote a brief addendum in July 2013. Click here.

Notes:

1. Francesca Cortesi Bosco, Gli Affreschi dell'Oratorio Suardi: Lorenzo Lotto nella Crisi della Riforma (Bergamo) 1980

2. Cited in Lorenzo Lotto (Washington, DC) 1997, p. 163

3. There are two brief written references to a portrait of Odoni in the sixteenth century, the most detailed merely described as "a half-figure in oil by Messer Andrea, contemplating the fragments of antique marble, by the hand of Lorenzo Lotto." The second has no description at all. Cited in ibid.,p. 161

4. ibid., p.163

5. Peter Humfreys came up with a completely illogical explanation to explain why only the head of Hadrian can be identified as a piece in Odoni's collection. "....[A]s recognized, the pieces that surround Odoni cannot portray a selection of treasures from his own collection, but constitute rather an ideal assembly, brought together, in the manner of the various symbolic objects found in Lotto's other portraits, to provide a commentary on the identity, circumstances, or personal philosophy of the sitter." What does this mean? Translation: Lotto used items taken from his other portraits in order to portray an aspect of Lotto's identity, circumstances or philosophy. It makes no sense. Humfreys in Lorenzo Lotto (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art) 1997, p. 163

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