Painted with charming intimacy on a fine walnut panel, this picture is a significant rediscovery, adding to our understanding of the career of Lorenzo Lotto, one of the greatest and most individual artists of his era. The present Adoration dates to the later part of Lotto’s life, after he had moved to the Marches following sustained periods in Bergamo and Venice. The panel offers a key insight into Lotto’s creative processes in his mature years. The design of the Madonna, kneeling with her arms outstretched, derives from a lost picture by Lotto made during his time in Bergamo, in either 1518 or 1521, which is known today through a copy by Domenico Tassi (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Other instances are known where Lotto, from the 1540s onwards, would revisit earlier ideas, such as returning to his Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Musée du Louvre, Paris) for a version now in the Museo e Tesoro della Santa Casa di Loreto. It is possible that he may have kept a sketch of his early Adoration, reworking it for this panel; indeed, Lotto was known to be quite fastidious in safeguarding his drawings, insisting on one occasion, in 1531, that his cartoons for marquetry designs be returned to him for potential future use.
The spontaneous handling and constant revision of the composition are evident in the numerous pentiments, notable especially around the figure of Saint Joseph, with adjustments made to his yellow cloak, to his stick and to the inclination of his head. Infrared reflectography has revealed delicate underdrawing, especially in the figure of the Madonna (fig. 1), further supporting the idea that he may have utilized the drawing from years before.
Although the picture does not appear to be listed in the Libro di spese diverse, Lotto’s account book that he kept after 1540, a group of at least five pictures by him are recorded in an inventory of 1563 of the ‘Salvarobba’ of the Santa Casa di Loreto, where Lotto became a lay brother in 1552 and where he would remain until his death in 1557. One of these works, a Fall of the Giants, is very likely the canvas first published by Keith Christiansen and exhibited at Caldarola in 2008 (see K. Christiansen, ‘A Lotto “novità”: the “Fall of the Titans”’, Mélanges en hommage à Pierre Rosenberg. Peintures et dessins en France et en Italie, XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles, Paris, 2001, pp. 148-152). Another is listed as ‘Quadro in dicto loco di Lorenzo Loto con la Natività di nostro Signore’, which could possibly be the picture under consideration here. Simone Facchinetti (op. cit.) dates the work to circa 1549-50, comparing it stylistically to his Fight between Strength and Fortune (Museo Antico Tesoro della Santa Casa, Loreto), and suggests that it could have been the upper part of a portable altarpiece.