Lorenzo Lotto's restlessness between Leopardi and Anna Banti: the Transfiguration of Recanati

Giacomo Leopardi never had an interest in Lorenzo Lotto's works, although there were masterpieces of his in Recanati. Still, is it possible to identify common traits between the painter and the poet?

Those who try to find, in Giacomo Leopardi’s writings, a glimmer of interest in Lorenzo Lotto will be disappointed. Yet it will be said that the coincidences are many. Starting with the presence of the Venetian artist in the “native wild village,” which perhaps then was not so wild, or at least it was not so wild in the sixteenth century, when Recanati boasted of being one of the richest centers wealthy in the then Papal States, and when the Dominicans of Recanati could afford to pay Lorenzo Lotto, for the polyptych of San Domenico, a sum significantly higher than the market standards of the time. And then, one might consider the fact that the poet’s father, Monaldo, in his collection possessed a copy, attributed to Durante Nobili, of Lotto’s Transfiguration , the large three-meter-high altarpiece that the artist painted around 1511 for the church of Santa Maria di Castelnuovo, located just outside the walls of Recanati, in an artisans’ quarter. The hill ofInfinity itself would seem to converse with the knoll of the Gospel story: both are called “Mount Tabor.” Yet, Leopardi did not write half a word about Lorenzo Lotto: many, in the more or less recent past, have tried to find links that might unite them, but one has never gone beyond the mere fascination of suggestion. At most, it has been proposed to unite the poet and the painter in a kind of ideal commonality, in their similar destiny as outcasts who lived on the margins of society and who only obtained post mortem full recognition of the scope of their experience, of the exceptional nature of their genius.

Lacking, however, is any concrete trace. “The encounter therefore did not take place,” to use a phrase from one of Lorenzo Lotto’s greatest scholars, Pietro Zampetti, who had also been astonished that those paintings, which should have been of interest to Leopardi, “even if little known to most people at the time,” had not actually had any appreciable effect on the poet’s soul. “Thus,” Zampetti wrote, “Leopardi had no way of getting close to him and of feeling the pains of a character who, albeit for different reasons, was so close to him.” If anything, the two were separated by their irreconcilable worldview: gifted with a firm, powerful and almost visionary faith Lorenzo Lotto, modern thinker and layman Giacomo Leopardi. The Leopardi who, in Pensieri, cannot consider death an evil since death, if anything, frees man from all his evils, has nothing to do with the Lotto who paints a Cupid crowning a skull, lying on a pillow as if he were sleeping, a symbol of death as a moment of passage while waiting for eternal life, or death, Mauro Zanchi has written, “as the crown of life, as the crowning of an existential path, as a moment that brings the individual human soul to the vision of the Whole.”

Perhaps, in front of Lorenzo Lotto’s Transfiguration , in front of those restless and twisted figures that populate it, in the presence of that wavering light that is one of the salient features of the great Venetian painter’s restlessness, Leopardi remained indifferent: that he did not know the work seems impossible, while it is more likely that he was aware of it but was not captured by it. And not because he was insensitive to art, since the myth of Leopardi lacking in figurative culture has been widely and soundly debunked by the most astute critics: perhaps, more simply, because he was not interested in Lotto’s.

Lorenzo Lotto, Trasfigurazione di Cristo (1511 circa; olio su tavola, 300 x 203 cm; Recanati, Villa Colloredo Mels)
Lorenzo Lotto, Transfiguration of Christ (c. 1511; oil on panel, 300 x 203 cm; Recanati, Villa Colloredo Mels)

The altarpiece, after all, stood not far from his home. The provost of the church of Santa Maria di Castelnuovo, a certain Alessandro Mencioni, had been moving since 1507 to endow the temple with a suitable altarpiece, and had even asked the Municipality of Recanati for a contribution pro cona et aliis ornamentis, exactly one hundred ducats, as the documents published a couple of years ago by Francesca Coltrinari show. And the following year Lorenzo Lotto was already receiving an advance for the painting, but it took at least three years to complete it, as the painter was at the time busy with other projects, and more specifically the aforementioned polyptych for the Dominicans and his stay in Rome kept him busy, which for many months distracted him from his work for Santa Maria di Castelnuovo. Once finished, Lorenzo Lotto’s altarpiece was placed on the high altar, where it remained for exactly two centuries: in 1711 it was moved to a side altar, and then, in 1890, it became part of the collection of the Pinacoteca Comunale. And even today the public sees it at the Villa Colloredo Mels civic museum.

Giorgio Vasari already spoke of the Transfiguration in his Lives: “Et una tavola a olio è nella chiesa di Santa Maria di Castelnuovo con una Trasfigurazione di Cristo e con tre storie di figure piccole nella predella: quando Cristo mena gl’Apostoli al Monte Tabor, quando ora nell’orto, e quando ascende in cielo.” The “small figure stories” are no longer there today, having been dispersed throughout history: only one has been traced, preserved in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Today, then, we see only the large oil panel with the episode of the transfiguration: according to the account of Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus, after ascending Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John, is said to have changed his appearance completely, appearing to the three apostles together with the prophets Moses and Elijah and clothed in a white tunic, in a dazzling light, to the point that the disciples could not bear the strength of it. Lotto sets the scene in a bare landscape almost to the point of abstraction: only the curved outline of Mount Tabor is visible, at most marked by a few rocks. Christ is on the summit, flanked by the two prophets, Moses turned toward the concerning, with the tablets of the law resting in front of him, and Elijah, who instead has his back to the viewer, balancing Moses’ pose in contrast. Christ speaks to them, in the midst of a lively dialogue. Below, here are John, Peter and James, who, as per typical iconography, are overwhelmed by the apparition and are lying on the ground, with their arms and hands trying to shield their eyes from the light so dazzling, their poses are so contorted and bizarre, all along the horizontal axis of the composition, that not even there seems to be only three people in the lower register of the altarpiece.

Much has been written about the possible reaction to Raphael and Michelangelo that takes shape with this Transfiguration, and the reflectographic investigations that preceded the latest restoration, carried out in 2013 by Francesca Pappagallo, would seem to have led to one piece of evidence: specifically, the figure of Christ would originally have been frontal as per tradition, and then Lotto would have reworked it in a more naturalistic sense, as it appears in the finished painting. Between the commissioning and the delivery of the work, moreover, had been the stay in Rome: for Lotto, contact with Raphael and Michelangelo meant the abandonment of all fifteenth-century heritage, but not to imitate what the two greats of the mature Renaissance were producing in the capital, but rather to seek his own path toward modernity. What this path is, Anna Banti, an extraordinary exegete of the Venetian painter, has well pointed out: for her, the Transfiguration of Recanati, “all crackling,” “leads to almost hallucinated effects.” And these almost hallucinated effects are Lorenzo Lotto’s response not only to a formal need, but also to an inner need: “studying these faces dilated by ecstasy, these rocky beards, these limbs crunching and which the folding of cloths nails and reaffirms in the most complicated fetters; sensing, at the margins of such difficult motions, the vibration of the most delicate, supersensible hands and feet, all gesture and expression, one cannot help but think of a possible meaning and moral worth of such formal restlessness.” It was the “spiritual ferments” that operated in Venice in the new century, and that reached Rome as well, the force to which “Lotto’s nature could not remain indifferent,” which had inevitably stirred his “spirit inclined to freedom, but bound to tradition by affection,” Anna Banti writes again. It was the uncomfortable and uneasy feeling that he was living in a heavy, difficult, uncertain historical moment. And to all this we can add his wandering life, his career for the most part ill-fated.

At the end of his life, in his will, Lotto described himself as “alone, without fidel government et very restless in mind.” Lotto’s inner torment was certainly very different from Leopardi’s, the reasons little overlapping. On the one hand a painter of troubled faith, scarcely inclined to settle down, who lived his age with supreme anguish and deep unease. On the other the poet’s existential malaise, the seasons of his pessimism. Situations that produced results that perhaps, when read between the crackles of the fire of art and poetry, do not appear so dissimilar. But which never met.

If you enjoyed this article, read the previous ones in the same series: Vittorio Zecchin’sOne Thousand and One Nights; Gabriele Bella’sConcert; Plinio Nomellini’sRed Nymph;Guercino’sApparition of Christ to His Mother; and Titian’sMagdalene.

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