In one of the small rooms of the Galeria Borghese is a Portrait of a Gentleman (Ritratto di Gentiluomo) by Lorenzo Lotto. It grabbed me the way Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring grabbed me when I saw it at the Frick Gallery in New York just before coming to Rome. Whether or not you know anything about the painter or the subject, you want to keep staring, in part because he stares back, but also because in staring back, he seems to open a pathway into a true understanding of this individual who lived five hundred years ago. The gentleman, Mercurio Bua, a commander in the Venetian army in the first half of the 16th century, rests his hand on a wreath with a small skull. His neck is canted to the left, as if he doesn't have the strength or willingness to stand upright. One eye looks at us, sadly, the other seems to look beyond the viewer. His lips are pursed. This is the image of a man of wealth and stature, beaten down.
Bernard Berenson, whose could be viciously dismissive, wrote, in his Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism (1901), that Mercurio Bua looks as if the world were just dawning upon him again after a sorrow that had overwhelmed him like a terrible illness." (p. 259) Bua's first wife died in 1524, after five years of marriage; his second wife, who he married in 1525, died in 1528. The portrait was made just a few years after her death. I had a sense of someone who had put himself together enough to sit for a portrait but was broken inside. Berenson rightly says that "Lotto's psychological interest is never of a purely scientific kind. It is, above all, humane, and makes him gentle and full of charity for his sitters, as if he understood all their weaknesses without despising them, so that he nearly always succeeds in winning our sympathy for them."
This image of Lorenzo Lotto moved me in a similar way to the statues of Giacometti at the Borghese did. I wish they had chosen to place one of Giacometti’s compelling standing figuresin this small room, off the beaten parth of the Borghese’s greatest hits. Separated by so much time, culture, setting, materials, the works somehow tapped into a similar set of emotions: broken hearts, but firm resolve; a fragileness but willingness to move forward; and under it all, a recognition that tragedy seems to wait in the wings. Giacometti’s figures are inextricably bound up with the aftermath of World War II, when optimism would be ridiculous, but resilience was possible. Lotto is of another time entirely, but that look, and those eyes, one peering into us, and another away, in a frozen gaze are of the same source.
History does not move in a straight line, E. H. Carr long remarked (in a book I read before arriving for my first year in the History PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania). “We sometimes speak of the course of history as a ‘moving procession.’” He wrote. “The metaphor is fair enough, provided it does not tempt the historian to think of himself as an eagle surveying the scene from a lonely crag or as a V.I.P. at the saluting base. Nothing of the kind! The historian is just another dim figure trudging along in another part of the procession….New vistas, new angles of vision, constantly appear as the procession—and the historian with it—moves along. The historian is part of history. The point in the procession at which he finds himself determines his angle of vision over the past.”
At any given moment, we may find ourselves closer to a particular age. Bernini was despised by many observers (Dickens and Ruskin among them), only to now be treated with gasps of awe today. Guido Reni was seen as a peer of Raphael, but now hardly known by the average person. And Lorenzo Lotto, famous in his own time, well regarded and sought after for his portraits, was then overshadowed by others who followed in the late 16th century. He was undervalued for centuries. It was, in fact, Berenson who “rescued" him, at least for those in the English-speaking world. Even then, it was not until 1953 that there was a major exhibition about Lotto was held.
As Elaine Scarry has written, the experience of error is often the first step in the appreciation of beauty. When we miss the beautiful in a tree, or a person, or a poem, it is not the end, but often the beginning of a journey, giving us the opportunity to fix the error, to gain a new, or renewed, understanding.
In my ruminations on how we decide what of our physical environment to save, I have been thinking a lot about our attitudes toward architectural death. In U.S. preservation policy, we are all in or all out: either a building is landmarked and therefore we believe it should be preserved, as much as possible as is, forever, or it is not landmarked and therefore free to live a short or long life, as per the owner's desires. Our system is weak, so we have limited ability to insist on preservation (a building placed on the National Register of Historic Places one day can, in most places, be demolished by a private owner the following day). But the idea still remains that if today we decide a building is of significance, we imagine it remaining of significance forever. We have no middle ground, no way to either reconsider significance (although buildings that fall into great disrepair may lose their standing). And we have a very inflexible idea of buildings changing, and even declining and then dying.
I have imagined that perhaps rather than having a system whereby there is one moment where we decide whether a building or place is significant or not, we instead have a regular system of evaluation – say, every decade. We return to a building and ask about its importance, and reconsider its meaning. It would give us a chance to think anew about what places matter to us, and which do not.
But I see dangers in this ideas, and this relatively obscure image by Lorenzo Lotto made me pause. Had the painting I saw been a building, and thus much harder to preserve, it might easily have been dismissed as passé and torn down. Indeed, the history of architecture is largely the history of demolition. Had that happened here, we would have lost the opportunity to rediscover – hundreds of years later – a painting, and an artist, who somehow spoke to our time.