Giovanni Agostino della Torre was a distinguished doctor and citizen of Bergamo. He had taught at the University of Padua, and the costume he wears is official or academic dress. In 1510 he was elected prior of Bergamo’s College of Physicians, an office he held until his death.
The texts on the two square pieces of paper below the inkstand are prescriptions. The paper label on the back cover of the book held by Agostino reads ‘Galienus’, meaning Galen, who was the great medical authority of the ancient world. On one of the pieces of paper in Agostino’s right hand is an inscription that refers to Aesculapius, the physician god of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The portrait is signed and includes a date, which is illegible today but recorded as 1515.
The man behind Agostino is Niccolò, who was 33 in 1516 when his father died. It seems that he was added to what was originally conceived only as a portrait of Agostino, perhaps on the occasion of his father’s death.
Giovanni Agostino della Torre was a second generation doctor from Bergamo, already in practice by 1465. The family had a pharmacy supplying spices, oils, drugs, pigments and chemicals in Piazza Vecchia, with a special line in selling vitriol (sulphuric acid). Agostino had taught at the famous University of Padua, and the costume he wears is official or academic dress; the belt and open sleeves suggest high rank. A similar coat is worn by Battista Fiera, physician to the Mantuan court, in Costa’s portrait of him. In 1510 Agostino was elected prior of Bergamo’s College of Physicians, an office he held until his death at age 81 on 7 June 1516.
On the outer of the two folded papers in Agostino’s right hand is a Latin inscription: Medicorum Esculapio / Joanni Augustino Be/rgomatj:- (‘Giovanni Agostino of Bergamo’, then a reference to Aesculapius, the physician god of the ancient Greeks and Romans). The word Consilium (‘advice’) appears on the second paper beneath it. The texts on the two square pieces of paper below the inkstand are prescriptions. The paper label on the back cover of the book held by Agostino reads ‘Galienus’, meaning Galen, who was the great medical authority of the ancient world. The portrait is signed and dated on the chair: L. LOTVS././.
The folded paper resting on the table between the inkwell and Agostino’s shoulder translates from Latin: ‘To my dear friend the nobleman of Bergamo, Niccolò della Torre, Bergamo.’ This refers to the bearded man behind Agostino: his only son, Niccolò. As a supporter of the Venetians, when Bergamo fell to the French in 1510 Niccolò was saved from being expelled from the city by a petition written by one of his father’s patients. When Venetian rule was re-established after Spanish occupation of the city from 1513 to 1516, Niccolò was re-elected to the city council and was active in the political life of the city until his death at the age of 80 in 1563. The portrait not only depicts an eminent and learned physician but also his son, who was a figure of great wealth and considerable political importance in Bergamo.
The composition suggests that Agostino was originally intended to be portrayed alone; Niccolò is crowded ungracefully into the background. If the sitters had been planned together, we would have expected some physical or psychological contact between them, as is found in Lotto’s other, slightly later, double portraits. Niccolò appears to have been added after the portrait was composed and possibly originally completed. He was 33 in 1516 when his father died, and does not look much older here, so perhaps that was when he was added to the picture.
The treatment of the flesh, the minutely marked lips and the carefully distinguished shadows of Agostino’s face are characteristic of Lotto’s early portraits. Also typical are the minute highlights in the irises. The unusual green colour of Agostino’s face, as well as the red rims of his eyes, is surely deliberate.
The fly settled on Agostino’s handkerchief is a startling piece of realism. The painting of flies and their shadows – to make it look as if they had landed in or on the painting – was a demonstration of the magical, illusionistic power of paint. Lotto would have known examples in both Netherlandish and Italian art. It is here probably also a symbol of illness or death, emphasising the advanced age and frailty of the portrait’s main sitter.
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