Giovanni Battista Moroni

Royal Academy
25 October 2014 – 25 January 2015

The gift of the true master portrait painter, said Sir Joshua Reynolds in the first of his Discourses, is the ability ‘to snatch a grace beyond the reach of art’. The great champion of making portraits as against landscapes and history painting believed that true genius is in the ability of the artist to reach into his subject and bring out something more than just a likeness. ‘It is then, when their genius has received its utmost improvement, that rules may possibly be dispensed with,’ he warned students at his new Royal Academy in 1769, with the hint that in their case it would probably never happen.

But it had happened before, and Reynolds’s eventually successful case was no more than a rebirth of the cult of portraiture of the soul. A couple of centuries before it had surfaced in the small town of Albino in Bergamo, northern Italy, with the brushes of a painter of whom little is known, whose name is seldom uttered and who never strayed far from his own Lombardy birthplace – before Caravaggio, before Van Dyck, long before Reynolds. This Royal Academy exhibition tells us, as much as is possible, how he did it. The question remains, though – how did he get away with it?

Giovanni Battista Moroni was born some time in the early 1520s, the son of an architect. Much of his story is a mystery because he eludes that universally quoted guide to the pantheon of quinquecento artists, Lives of the Most Excellent, Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in which the word ‘Renaissance’ was first used to describe the new spirit in painting of the period. Its author, the Venetian Giorgio Vasari, never ventured as far as Albino and as far as we know Moroni never went to Venice.

His early training was in the studio of Il Moretto, the nickname of Alessandro Bonvicino, at nearby Breschia, and with him Moroni had travelled to Trento at the time of the Council of Trent, the historically explosive embodiment of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, where he first got kudos through religious painting, key examples of which are here. They are beautifully made, with all the right symbolism and light spaciousness that distinguishes him at first sight from Moretto whose work is his reference. But they are lifeless, there is no soul in these holy figures.

The world had come to Trento, however, secular as well as religious, and Moroni started to get portrait commissions. They show his rapid advance, from the frozen depictions of the Madruzzo family standing with their pets in formal fashion made around 1550, to the Carthusian Friar of four or five years later whose gentle features are relaxed as he speaks; or, back in Bergamo, Giovanni Luigi Seradobati of around 1559 in which the notary is at ease, sitting in a chair with a book in his left hand from which we have just distracted him to make him look sideways at us.

He has found his second secret. The first was to paint straight onto the canvas without under-drawing, an unusual practice for the time that he probably got from Moretto but which gave him an immediacy that perfected his technique; the second was to paint from the life or ‘al naturale’, also not common practice. You can see the difference graphically in the post-mortem portrait of Giovanni Bressani which is ill-defined with none of the vitality and integrity of his Seradobati.

Moroni’s star was reaching its zenith with the leading Bergamo families all seeking him out and he was part of an elite group of intellectuals – poets, painters, doctors, lawyers. That society was split apart in 1563 with a Montague-Capulet style feud reaching its climax when a scion of the Brembati family was assassinated in church and the leader of the Albanis was exiled.



Giovanni Battista Moroni
Portrait of Gian Gerolamo Albani, c. 1568-70
Oil on canvas, 107 x 75 cm
Private Collection
Photo: Private collection



Giovanni Battista Moroni
Portrait of Isotta Brembati, c.1553
Oil on canvas, 160 x 115 cm
Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo.
Lucretia Moroni Collection
Photo: Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni – Lucretia Moroni Collection.
Photography: Marco Mazzoleni.



Giovanni Battista Moroni
The Tailor, 1565-70
Oil on canvas, 99.5 x 77 cm
The National Gallery, London
Photo © The National Gallery, London




But Moroni clearly has his likes and dislikes among his subjects. In 1560 he paints the Spanish Governor of Milan, the Duke of Albuquerque, Gabriel de la Cueva, as a scowling thug gazing malevolently directly at the viewer, his sword hitched high on his waist for easy release. Did the subject approve of this portrayal? One of the leading literary figures of Bergamo society was Isotta Brembati, but she is shown here as an uncomfortable frump dressed in an all-enveloping brocade curtain-like garment with a thoroughly kitsch pink and white fur reticule (or possibly an undersized fan) hanging from her wrist, and no reference anywhere to her poetic accomplishments. Did she like this perception of her? In Portrait of A Doctor, however, we clearly see a mate, who is given the sideways chair treatment to relax him as he looks genially at the viewer, while in his left hand is a letter from the artist perhaps prompting the wisecrack about to come.

In the 1560s and 70s Moroni returns to religious commissions, but now with all the assurance of a master that allows him to be inventive with his composition. In The Last Supper of 1566-69, in which he brashly seizes on the issue of transubstantiation, the very part of the doctrine that had divided the church, Christ is offering the bread while the apostles are in animated discussion (except for one, who appears to have fallen asleep on the Saviour’s shoulder). There are no haloes, and the chief figure is the wine waiter. Standing behind Christ with the flask that bears his blood, and looking straight at the viewer, dressed in sober sixteenth-century attire, he is clearly the patron of this painting, given a place in the composition superior to that of Christ himself. Did the word ‘blasphemy’ ever occur in response?

In the 1570s Moroni excels everything he has done before, instilling narrative in even the most uncomplicated image. The very poignant Portrait of A Gentleman and His Two Daughters is subtitled The Widower, but the poignancy is in the characters: the elder girl gazing boldly at us in the Moroni way, bravely being the châtelaine in the absence of her dead mother; the younger girl confused and looking distractedly out to the left; the seated man – probably a poet if the clue of the books on a shelf behind is anything to go by – with his arms protectively resting on his daughters’ shoulders, looking bereft but determined.

Also of that year is the mysterious Tailor, unnamed but opulently dressed to show his prosperity. The portrayal of tradesmen at their trade, rather than in the garb of their guilds, is almost unheard of in the period, yet here he is, pinking shears in one hand, the edge of a bolt of cloth in the other.

But for me the pièce de résistance is the Portrait of a Young Lady painted in about 1575, four years before Moroni’s death. It is a glorious manifestation of all the skills that the master portrait painter has accrued over a lifetime. The silk of her embroidered bodice shimmers, the complexities of her heavy necklace with its gold tracery are punctuated by the nestling clusters of pearls; her crisply starched ruff with its intricate tracery casts light up into what should be a beautiful face that is framed by moistened tight curls. It is beautiful, but it’s a displeased face with arrogant dark eyes looking sideways at the viewer with annoyance, her full lips slightly pursed to let us know that this is an instant of momentary irritation caught by the snapshot painter. This is a young woman whom we know, whose flashing dark eyes we feel we’ve seen in jollier mood, whose haughtiness will dissolve into girlishness. This is a girl whose grace would be beyond the reach of art, but for this artist.

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