Certain artists, and not necessarily the most accomplished or significant, are occasionally accorded a privileged stature in the contemporary popular imagination. They inhabit an exalted realm of myth, romance—or as is fashionable today, “cult”—that places their reputation, if not beyond criticism, certainly above it. Even a handful of Renaissance artists have been bestowed similar distinction (yes, Caravaggio is the obvious example). Identifying the circumstances that initiate and sustain this process of beatification is not difficult: certainly premature death (preferably suicide), a tormented sexuality or sociopathic disposition, posthumous oblivion and eventual rediscovery, extreme rarity of extant works. All these can play a part. Often, a spotty or incomplete historical record increases this aura of mystery and awe.

Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1557) fits this profile only imperfectly: the obscurity in which his...

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