The juvenile joke hidden in a portrait

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: a hazy hint of adolescent humour in the background of Andrea Odoni (1527), among the stand-out paintings on display at the National Gallery in London in an engrossing new exhibition devoted to the pioneering portraits of the 16th-Century Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto. Just behind the sitter’s left elbow, lurking in the shadows of the work’s upper right-hand corner, the portrayal of a pair of bronze statuettes has been staged to create a crude comic subplot within the broader drama of the oblong canvas.

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The larger of these two works-within-a-work is an antique sculpture of a bathing Venus, seen washing her leg. The Roman goddess of beauty and love has turned her head to one side, seemingly oblivious of the presence of a naked Hercules, who has sidled up to her unawares. Wielding a shoulder-slung club with one hand while guiding an eternal flow of urine with his other, the god of strength and war, stumbling drunk, is overcome by nature’s call. He thrusts his pelvis forward towards Venus and appears to be filling the very basin in which she is now and forever bathing.