LOTTO, Lorenzo
(b. ca. 1480, Venezia, d. 1556, Loreto)

Man with a Golden Paw

c. 1527
Oil on canvas, 96 x 70 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Like Lorenzo Lotto's Young Man before a White Curtain, this pale, elegantly dressed, bearded man is shown before a curtain, only this time the curtain is a deep, dark red. It fills almost half of the painting, its fall broken by a green table, upon which the man leaning across into the picture space rests his elbow. It is the man's pose which lends such unease to the composition. Unlike the enduring quality imparted by the statuesque tranquility of Lotto's Young Man, the almost diagonal pose of this sitter suggests transience, a fleeting revelation, an impression intensified by the questing eyes of the sitter and his stangely mute gestures.

Whereas the hand on his chest may be interpreted as a sign of "sincerità" - reverence, or protestation (as when one crosses one's heart, or in the expression "mano sul cuore") - the stretched out left hand holding the golden paw presents us with a problem. It is difficult not to notice a latent aggression in the spread claw, which appears to be leaping from the man's grasp. Placed as it is, a little right of centre, this detail attracts more attention than its small size would initially seem to warrant, an effect underlined by the gleaming brightness of the wrought gold against the black sheen of the man's coat. There can be little doubt that the claw is central to the meaning of the painting. But how should it be understood? Is it intended as an attribute referring to the sitter's profession or social role? If so, then the sitter may be a sculptor or goldsmith, and the paw possibly an allusion to his name. The lion's paw might then stand for Leone Leoni (c. 1509-1590); a medallist himself, Leoni was naturally interested in "impresa", emblems and all kinds of allusions to names, and, for obvious enough reasons, chose the lion's paw as his own heraldic device. Leoni stayed at Venice in 1527 while Lotto was living there. However, these speculations amount to no more than a vague hypothesis, and unless more light is thrown on the origin of the painting, there seems little prospect of ever identifying the man.

Attribution and dating can be traced back to Giovanni Morelli, whose method - attribution on the basis of details otherwise considered secondary (e.g. the depiction of the sitter's ears or fingers), but thought to remain constant throughout an artist's "oeuvre" - cannot be allowed to pass unquestioned.

It is not unthinkable that the paw, or claw, may be an obscure reference to some Latin phrase which, in this context, would have the force of a motto. The motto might be "ex ungue leonem" (to recognize "the lion by its paw"), a synechoche employed by Classical writers, for example Plutarch and Lucian, to refer - by metonymy - to a painter's brushwork or signature, or "hand" in sculpture, which immediately identifies the work of a particular master. This interpretation of the paw would, of course, be in keeping with the suggestion that it represents a professional attribute.

A conclusive interpretation of this painting is not possible. The historical and aesthetic conditions of the painting's conception and execution evidently precluded access to its meanings by more than a limited circle of Lotto's contemporaries, a problem that makes the painting virtually impossible to decipher today. The precept of "dissimulatio", the demand - frequently voiced in the increasingly popular moralizing literature of the day - that the sitter's inward world remain concealed, or veiled, seems to have influenced its conception. The painting shows a new page turning in the history of the mind, a new stage of awareness of subjectivity and individuality. Here was a dialectical response to a feeling that the self had become all too transparent, all too vulnerable, an example of the new tactics required by the self-assertive individual in contemporary social hierarchies.