Lotto wrote in his account book that he gave a painting on 23 September 1547 to ‘Giovanni della Volta, my landlord’. He describes it as ‘a painting with his portrait from life and that of his wife with two children, altogether comprising four figures’. The portrait may have been painted in lieu of rent.
The family is gathered around a table covered with an elaborately patterned Turkish carpet. The mother offers cherries from the silver bowl to her daughter while the animated little boy reaches up on one leg for a pair of cherries dangled from his father’s hand. The barren lagoon landscape may have symbolic significance or simply suggest a view through an upstairs window.
There is no other known portrait by Lotto of a married couple and two children – such portraits were unusual in early sixteenth-century Italy. Double portraits of couples were rare in Venice, but more common on the mainland where Lotto had worked extensively and painted several.
When Lotto painted this picture he had recently returned to Venice from Treviso. He wrote in his account book that he gave a painting on 23 September 1547 to ‘Giovanni della Volta, my landlord’. He describes it as ‘a painting with his portrait from life and that of his wife with two children, altogether comprising four figures’. Perhaps the portrait of the family was painted in lieu of rent, which would have been due in November 1546 and May 1547.
The family is gathered around a table draped with an elaborately patterned Turkish carpet. Oriental carpets were often used as table coverings in the sixteenth century – it was unusual to put them on the floor as they were very expensive. This type of carpet, with an ornamental border of pseudo-Kufic script, was frequently represented by Lotto and is now commonly known as a ‘Lotto carpet’. The silver bowl of cherries in the centre forms the focal point of the portrait. The reflection of the carpet’s pattern can be seen in its polished surface. The daughter places cherries from the bowl in her mother’s hand.
The woman is in the position of honour on the man’s right, which is unusual. The painting is also lit from the right, which suggests it was made for a specific location. The barren lagoon landscape may have symbolic significance or simply suggest a view through an upstairs window. However, what seems like smoke rising from the distant mountain may be an unintended consequence of the very worn condition of the paint in the clouds. Indeed, large areas of the painting are abraded.
The animated little boy, striking in his translucent blue drapery, reaches up on one leg for a pair of cherries dangled from his father’s hand. His strange, semi-nude appearance may have symbolic significance, perhaps to emphasise his status as first-born male and thus heir. His pose may be based on a sculpture, reminiscent as it is of the relief of dancing children in Titian’s Portrait of Clarice Strozzi dated 1542 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). It could have been based on a recorded relief sculpture brought from Florence to Venice by Bartolomeo Ammannati, a sculptor in the workshop of Lotto’s friend, Jacopo Sansovino.
The position of the woman’s hand on her hip and her crumpled sleeves of deep rose satin are reminiscent of those in Portrait of a Young Woman of about 1545–50 by Paris Bordone, whom Lotto certainly knew. The contrast between light and shade in the fold of the woman’s right sleeve has been exaggerated by the fading of the red lake pigment where it is thinly painted, which is also a common problem in paintings by Bordone.
There is no other known portrait by Lotto of a married couple and two children – such portraits were unusual in early sixteenth-century Italy. In Venice double portraits of a husband and wife were also uncommon and we know of no earlier examples; Lotto may have come up with the idea himself. He had painted two double portraits of married couples 20 years earlier during his time in Bergamo, Marsilio and his Wife (Prado, Madrid) and Portrait of a Married Couple (Hermitage, St Petersburg). He painted another double portrait in Venice in 1549 of his fellow tenant Girolamo Pullino and his wife (now lost).
We know from Lotto’s account book entry that the Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife and Children originally had a cover of stretched, possibly decorated, fabric to protect it, which has been lost.
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