Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Golden Paw

Lorenzo Lotto

Man with a Golden Paw

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

"This pale, elegantly dressed, bearded man is shown before a curtain in 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. The almost diagonal pose of this sitter suggests transience, a fleeting revelation, an impression intensified by the questing eyes of the sitter and his strangely mute gestures. Whereas the hand on his chest may be interpreted as a sign of "sincenta" 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. It is also 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 synecdoche employed by classical writers to represent a painter's brushwork or the "hand" of a sculptor.This interpretation of the paw would, of course, be in keeping with the suggestion that it represents a professional attribute."

Images and a fuller commentary here.