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1 Exordium Modernity’s Gaze The young man’s forlorn, abstracted, and blank gaze suggests disorientation and incipient melancholy: we cannot meet his eyes, and they will not meet ours. Indeed, the beholder of Lorenzo Lotto’s canvas may feel somewhat flustered, as though he or she had accidentally intruded on a scene of intensely personal, albeit ineffable anguish. For Lotto’s young man, whose identity remains unknown, seems utterly alone in the world—the quintessentially modern, solitary individual confined to his study in ways familiar from the candle-lit interior of Descartes’s Meditations all the way to the cork-lined refuge where Proust would labor on his magnum opus. Yet Lotto’s youth also appears bereft of the dynamism, confidence, and sense of purpose usually claimed for the modern, autonomous self—be it Descartes’s cogito, John Locke’s “consciousness,” or Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s “founding act” (Tathandlung). The cold-blooded lizard and discarded ring on the table hint at the loss of ēros as a source of motivation, an impression compounded by the fact that lute and hunting horn, emblems of conviviality and worldly pleasure, are now hung up on the wall in the background.1 Instead, the glimpse of the outside world that the painting affords us shows dusk encroaching. The pendulum swings; time moves on. We have 1. Dating of Lotto’s canvas varies, with some (Berenson) dating it as early as 1524, and others suggesting dates of 1526 (Brown et al.) or even 1530 (Humfrey). For discussions, see Humfrey,­ Lorenzo Lotto, D. A. Brown, Lorenzo Lotto, and Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto. 2 Minding the modern­ happened upon a scene of palpable melancholy. Thus, even as a massive folio dominates the picture, the young man’s irresolute posture intimates that books no longer hold answers, perhaps because the right questions elude him. On one widely accepted interpretation, the tome is a business ledger. Other, earlier accounts view the massive folio as emblematic of a life of study to which the man now means to dedicate himself. Either way, the relation of the young man’s body to the book suggests a state of incapacitation and inertia, rather than gathering resolve. Moreover, the enigmatic knowledge contained in the folio may well account for the young man’s distracted and withdrawn expression. Hence it is that the book’s ponderous mass supports the young man only physically. For his body, leaning on it, strikes a twisted, faintly artificial pose, and his left hand betrays his distracted and indifferent attitude toward the book. Moreover, the absence of a chair, of paper and quill in this study, as well as the miscellaneous array of a half-opened letter and a ruffled blue silk cloth casually bunched up beneath the folio all suggest a psychological state of abstractive loitering rather than focused and purposive study. Meanwhile, the unwieldy folio appears more as dead mass than as a repository of learning. We suspect that the unspecified past wisdom contained in it has but the most tenuous hold on the young man whose consciousness, to judge by his withdrawn gaze, appears altogether adrift. If the book seems incapable of answering questions , it is so because for Lotto’s youth to articulate those questions would require contact with an outside world of experience from which he has quite obviously withdrawn . Sequestered into gathering darkness, the young man appears wholly bereft of sense experience, interpersonal relations, and commitments such as define the world outside his study. That world has been reduced to a narrow slice of landscape faintly illumined from the horizon and soon to be expunged from sight by the nocturnal clouds gathering overhead. Yet, to return to the heart of the painting, the book: does the massive tome with its worn leather binding constitute a bona fide repository of learning, or is it but an emblem of the futility or sheer elusiveness of knowledge? Do the fading rose petals, conventional emblems of transience and of time lost, stand in metonymic relationship to the book’s vellum leaves so distractedly fingered by the man? Is it truly a book, or are we to take it as an emblem of a lost plenitude, an allegory of the premodern cosmos that has been displaced by numberless theoretical perplexities liable to induce the terror of Blaise Pascal’s silent, “infinite spaces”? Indeed , if the book no longer stands for the plenitude of (past and future) meanings but, instead, allegorizes the terminal loss of certainty in matters of...


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