Published  09/12/2014

Giovanni Battista Moroni

Giovanni Battista Moroni

In this major exhibition of the 16th-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni, the Royal Academy is showing more than 40 works, from his portraits to his lesser-known religious paintings

The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts, London
25 October 2014 – 25 January 2015


In 1545, the great Renaissance poet, blackmailer and pornographer Pietro Aretino lamented that it was the disgrace of the age that butchers and tailors featured in painted portraits. While for chronological reasons he couldn’t have had in mind Giovanni Battista Moroni’s portrait The Tailor (1565-70), Aretino’s distaste was prescient. The Royal Academy’s enlightening retrospective of more than 40 works offers a broadly chronological overview of all of Moroni’s (c1520-c1579-80) production, from the candid portraits that might have irked Aretino to his understandably lesser-known religious works.

Considerable attention is devoted to this aspect of Moroni’s production. As a painter of the deleterious – as far as painting was concerned – Counter Reformation, he created images that plainly expounded doctrinal content, as was required of him, and to the detriment of his art. Many of the ecclesiastical commissions on view are laboriously schematic, with a constrained Moroni simply modifying the inventions of other artists in a series of didactic images whose programmatic fervour suggests a weakened Catholic Church.

While the thrill of discovering a neglected area of an artist’s production is absent here, the curious and interestingly awkward hybrids that insert an element of portraiture into religious scenes are worth noting. In The Last Supper (1566-69), an otherwise serviceable but lacklustre image, Moroni has introduced a standing figure behind St John, inside the painting yet apart from the central drama. Although the sitter’s identity is not known (it was once thought to be a self-portrait), this is certainly a portrait, whose frowning, direct gaze constitutes the only tangibly human presence among otherwise stilted figures. Moroni also places a spectator within the painting in devotional portraits such as Gentleman in Contemplation before the Madonna and Child and Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ (both c1555). Here, the worshippers do not face the viewer but occupy an uncertain space while contemplating their respective visions. In the Baptism of Christ, an architectural element marks a possible separation between the gentleman and the imaginary scene, but the spatial relationship between the two is unclear. As well as presenting the conceptually interesting inclusion of the spectator within the painting, there is something in this ambiguous division that suggests Moroni’s position, on the threshold between the waning of the world of religion and the advent of secular humanism. The exhibition curator, Arturo Galansino, suggested in conversation that Moroni essentially led a “double life”, unconventional and even anachronistic in his portraiture, but also completely of his time and cultural context when it came to his religious works, and these images point to this ambiguity.

A tension between “inside” and “outside” is at the forefront of Moroni’s portraiture, a field he made all his own, for all of art historian Bernard Berenson’s trenchant and curiously retrograde dismissal of the “the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced”. Apart from his stint in Trent, Moroni spent his working life in the provinces, initially Brescia and Bergamo, and finally his native town of Albino. These regions lacked the abundant stock of aristocrats and military heroes of cities such as Venice, Mantua, Florence and Rome. Bergamo was also something of a hybrid: although under the jurisdiction of the Venetian Republic, it was physically and culturally closer to Milan, which was under Spanish dominion. For his cycle of portraits of the predominantly Bergamasque and Brescian aristocracy in the 1550s and 1560s, Moroni adopted the flamboyant palette of Venetian painting, his sitters often portrayed against a background of classical ruins with reliefs and inscriptions of a moralising or celebratory tone, their carefully crafted identities as much a work of art as the painting themselves.

Although Moroni was a far more penetrating observer of men, the portraits of Lucia Albani Avogadro (1556-60) and Isotta Brembati (1555) are worth noting. Their portraits hang, to theatrical effect, next to their respective husbands, who were involved in an ultimately deadly feud. Here, Moroni luxuriates in the depiction of opulent stuffs, chronicled with scrupulous precision and lustre. There’s no allusion to the most interesting aspect of these female sitters, who were both notable poets; they’re presented exclusively in their role as aristocrats and not for their literary accomplishments. The lush materiality and rhetoric of display in these images suggest that Moroni was still working to external dictates, though the occasional twitch of an inner mood surfaces.

The 1560s saw a shift towards that nebulous but crucial concept, modernity, in Moroni’s increasingly spare compositions and subdued tonal range. The profuse use of the Venetian and Spanish-influenced black, lessening the facile distraction of colour, served as a useful contrivance for his increasing focus on his subjects’ inner lives. His pool of sitters now included intellectuals, ecclesiastics, professionals and government employees, subjects versed in verbal skills rather than the fortuitous recipients of rank and fortune, reflecting a growing appreciation of talent and intelligence. Moroni’s subsequent move to his native Albino was all to the benefit of portraiture and not the limitation it might have seemed. By gradually discarding worldly trappings, Moroni could intensify the human portrayal of these less-celebrated, but infinitely interesting sitters in a meticulously observed disposition of faces and hands.

Of these works, the Portrait of a Doctor (1560) is particularly unaffected, with its relaxed pose and forthright rapport with the spectator, some ineffable essence scrutinised and set down in paint, without rejecting the manifest reality of the lump on the man’s forehead. It was this painting that led art historian Roberto Longhi to suggest that Moroni’s realistic precedents were of fundamental importance to Caravaggio. Longhi’s role in cementing the importance of the Lombard “painters of reality”, neglected in favour of the Tusco-Roman and Venetian schools, was crucial in the 20th century. The Moroni exhibition should also serve as a reminder of the remarkable and relatively unknown exponents of north Italian realism such as such as Fra’ Galgario, Girolamo Savoldo and Moroni’s teacher Moretto, to whom a room of the Royal Academy display is devoted.

At the time, Moroni’s attempts to document the visible were not necessarily prized. The entertaining anecdote that has Titian advising Venetian dignitaries en route to Bergamo to have their portraits painted by Moroni as he made them look natural, although apparently flattering, was in all likelihood a gibe directed at a provincial painter who deviated from canons of portraiture governed by etiquette rather than the attempt to embody a living person. While the veracity of the episode is uncertain, Titian in any case could not afford to be “real”, working as he did for emperors and princes. Real or not, the episode points to a tension between conflicting values.

If these portraits are sometimes anonymous in a strictly biographical sense (The Unknown Poet, Portrait of an Elderly Man Seated with a Book, Portrait of a Young Man of Twenty-nine), they also seem familiar and intimate in their acts of revelation, not achieved through external markers of social identity but through a sense of expectation that the act of looking at the human face entails. Berenson wrote of Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits that his subjects look out from hiscanvases“as if begging for sympathy”; Moroni’s are more restrained yet still seem to demand acknowledgement in their silent conversation with the viewer. This dialogue is at its most intense in the late portraits and it is in these that Moroni is seen a precursor of a painters such as Ingres and Whistler. The sombre tonal gradations of the Portrait of an Elderly Man Seated with a Book support Berenson’s comparison between Whistler and Moroni. Galansino also proposes the intriguing possibilities of a link between Moroni and Velázquez, certainly a possibility given the ties between Lombardy and Spain. One of the finest portraits of this exhibition, the Portrait of a Girl of the Redetti Family, an exquisite rendering of childish solemnity and material opulence, was likened by Moroni scholar Gertrud Lendorff to Velázquez in the shading of the girl’s face. Retrospectively, the psychological acuity of Moroni’s likenesses also brings to mind the extraordinary male portraits of Antonello da Messina (1430-1479).

Moroni’s imaginative apprehension of his sitter’s gaze is at its most charged in the measured, and measuring, Portrait of a Tailor. While not strictly speaking the first portrait of a tailor, a precedent set by Girolamo Bedoli, Moroni’s portrait nonetheless endows the depiction of a craftsman with unparalleled distinction. The portrayal also brings to mind the complaint of the theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1600) that because subjects of portraiture were no longer limited to the highest ranks of society, it was impossible to identify the subject of a painting given that merchants dressed like aristocrats and emperors like peasants. The tailor’s modishly slashed red breeches, fitted jacket and ruffed white shirt hardly seem modest and although contemporary prints illustrating the profession confirm this form of dress, it has also been hypothesised that the subject might be a textile merchant rather than a tailor. This image distils the inherent tension in portraiture, at once an exterior materialisation of the sitter’s mind, a conduit to the outside world showing every quiver of the subject’s moti mentali, but ultimately enigmatic, unknowable, as perhaps all portraits and faces are.

That Moroni was particular appreciated in England emerges not only in the National Gallery’s acquisition of 11 of his works, but also in the literary afterlife of his portraits. George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) describes the “impenetrable gaze and air of distinction” of Moroni’s sitter, and suggests that a Moroni portrait would have been as lively a companion as the character in question. In his 1888 story The Liar, Henry James immortalised The Tailor. For the Jamesian protagonist: “There were half a dozen portraits in Europe that Lyon rated as supreme; he regarded them as immortal, for they were as perfectly preserved as they were consummately painted. It was to this small exemplary group that he aspired to annex the canvas on which he was now engaged. One of the productions that helped to compose it was the magnificent Moroni of the National Gallery – the young tailor, in the white jacket, at his board with his shears. The Colonel was not a tailor, nor was Moroni’s model, unlike many tailors, a liar; but as regards the masterly clearness with which the individual should be rendered his work would be on the same line as that.” Moroni provided the ultimate visual example of psychological portraiture that was perfectly attuned to James’s textual portraits. The charged presence of The Tailor almost gave life to yet another proto-modernist literary incarnation. Walter Pater had planned a further Imaginary Portrait around the subject of the painting, Il Sartore,but it was not to be and an unpublished fragment was found after Pater’s death.

Inclusive as it is, some gems are absent in the Royal Academy exhibition, notably the matchless c1553 portrait of Bartolommeo Bonghi (Metropolitan Museum, New York), a work that includes perhaps the best example of Moroni’s alluring landscapes with climbing plants, fragments of luminescent sky and dilapidated buildings, arrangements that form striking paintings within the painting. Berenson judged this portrait: “The finest Moroni in the world … Tell me whether in your opinion there is a more distinguished, and more refined, as well as more genial portrait in the world than Moroni’s Man in Black. You will see it was not by any means Whistler who invented tone.” The sole drawing in the Royal Academy exhibition, the Head of a Young Man (c1565), is a remarkable demonstration of Moroni’s ability to grasp the potentially ineffable with just a series of rapid strokes of chalk. In his painting, Moroni painted directly on to the canvas, like an impressionist, or indeed a Venetian painter, as Galansino suggests.

Moroni’s gallery of faces is infinitely watchable, each portrait rivetingly charged with human presence and the sympathy with which the painter seems to regard his subjects. He worked alone and while this might have been relatively normal in portraiture, it was unusual in the production of religious works. The exhibition curators have even speculated that the creation of religious images with no workshop assistance, ahead of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo’s apostolic visit to Bergamo, might have contributed to Moroni’s early death. In his solitude too, Moroni seems to teeter on the brink of a modern age that increasingly prized the individual both as subject and maker. Neglected by Vasari (who simply never visited Bergamo), Moroni forged a quiet, unlikely revolution in portraiture in an otherwise undistinguished Lombard backwater. And while the tendency is generally to pit Moroni against his more acclaimed contemporaries, rather he should be seen as a precursor, even an anachronism, and all the more interesting for it.

The exhibition catalogue, Giovanni Battista Moroni by Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino, is published by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014


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