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Wendel R. Swan

Three rugs do not an exhibition make, except when surrounded by paintings by Lorenzo Lotto.

Through March 1, 1998, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, will have on display some fifty-one paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Lotto and three rugs of the types appearing in his works.

Although Lotto (1480 - 1556) portrayed oriental rugs in only six of his works, his name is associated with a particular group of Anatolian rugs having an infinitely repeating field pattern. Since those six works also included carpets that we refer to as "re-entrant" (or "Bellini") and "para-Mamluk" the moniker "Lotto rug" is a trifle misleading.

Lotto Painting With "Bellini" Rug

Oriental rugs found special favor among the aristocrats in Europe during the Renaissance and became a symbol of affluence. They are invariably shown as part of an important event, a religious scene, or as decoration in the homes of the commissioning subjects. Lotto painted them in meticulous detail, capturing the essence of their texture.

Lotto is the only Renaissance painter known to have owned an oriental rug, although it is not known whether he himself owned any of the carpets that we see in his paintings.

In an interesting entry in the catalog, we are informed that Lotto, then in Venice, pawned a "large Turkish carpet with a thick pile" for a period of one week during January of 1548. A Turkish carpet then cost roughly the equivalent of what Lotto was paid to do the family portrait in which the rug appeared.

Of the three rugs in the exhibition, two are in the "re-entrant" prayer rug format often referred to as "Bellini." One is a fabulous example on loan from the Museum fur Islamische Kunst in Berlin. The complexity of the green-ground Kufesque border perfectly frames the stark red field, in the middle of which is a compelling light-blue ground medallion. This rug alone makes a trip worthwhile.

The Berlin "Bellini" Rug

The other re-entrant rug is from the Ballard collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A marvelous rug itself, its border system seems crowded and undistinguished in comparison to the Berlin rug.

The Ballard "Bellini"

The third rug (the "Lotto") was loaned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Of the Anatolian style described by Charles Grant Ellis, it has a well-executed field and green Kufesque border. Although I find the "ornamented style" Lottos to be the most interesting (see R. Pinner, Multiple and Substrate Designs, Hali 42), this example provides a sufficient introduction to the genre.

The author, his wife Diane & Robert Torchia in front of the Lotto Rug

By the way, don't fail, as I almost did, to look at some of the paintings in this exceedingly rare exhibition. Most of the works are from European lenders and are likely not to return to the United States during our lifetimes.


1. In The Oriental Rug Lexicon, Peter Stone defines "Bellini Rugs" as

Anatolian prayer rugs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These are rugs with a pointed mihrab and open field except for a distinctive idented or lobed quadrilateral medallion. The main border may be Kufesque. An inner border may have a reentrant octagon or 'keyhole' at the bottom. This design is shown in rugs in paintings in northern Italy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The earliest representation of this prayer rug is in a painting in the National Gallery, London, by Gentile Bellini made in 1507.

2. Stone's Lexicon defines "para-Mamluk" rugs as

A group of fifteenth and sixteenth century rugs. Their field design is usually a 2-1-2 medallion arrangement, each medallion containing a complex, central star. The ground is red and most other design features of the field are green, blue, brown, yellow, and purple. In construction, these rugs have an asymmetric knot open to the left with "Z" spun yarn (Mamluks have "S" spun yarn). These rugs have been attributed to Cairene workshops, Damascus, and Anatolia.

To comment on this review, e-mail Wendel R. Swan.


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