Just when one thought there were no surprises left in the art world, then along comes Moroni at the Royal Academy to blow your pantaloons off. I knew Portrait of a Tailor from the National Gallery, a moody portrait of a brooding but confident young man, but little else about this unsung genius from Northern Italy. In his time he was very highly regarded, particularly in his home district of Lombardy, but he was overlooked by the great art critic Giorgio Vasari in his seminal work Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, purely because he never made it to his home town of Bergamo, and was dismissed as ‘the only mere portraitist Italy has ever produced’. But what a portraitist!
He studied under Alessandro Bonvicino, known as Moretto and also ‘the Raphael of Brescia’, two of whose religious works open the exhibition. Moroni himself started with altarpieces in the churches of Bergamo and some have travelled from Italy for the first time. Titian said of his work that it was ‘from nature’, and ‘a true and natural likeness, ’ which is praise indeed from the great Venetian master and his portraits are nothing short of brilliant. Another Venetian, the seventeenth-century writer Marco Boschini lavished praise on his painting of The Tailor, saying that ‘he speaks more eloquently than if he were a lawyer’, with his tilted head as though listening. However, the contemporary poet Aretino was less impressed; ‘to your disgrace, oh century, you allow even tailors and butchers to appear in paintings, just as they are’. But that is the point about Moroni’s portraits – they neither flatter nor deceive. His Portrait of Lucrezia Vertova Agliardi depicts an elderly widow in an uncompromising warts-and-all manner, with no attempt to hide the large goitre on her neck or her parchment skin. Titian believed that a portrait should be more than just a close record of a person’s appearance – they are also statements about the sitter’s position in society and his or her glamour and elegance. The old abbess’s gaze is downwards in contemplative prayer as she holds a prayer book in her hands.
There is only one portrait in the exhibition where the sitter is staring at the viewer full-face, and not in a three-quarters stance, with the head turned towards the viewer, and that is of a man, possibly Gian Girolamo Albani, in a luxurious dark coat lined with lynx and a gold cross and chain with the Lion of Saint Mark, which was a Venetian honour. The manner in which Moroni has rendered his beard and the fur is remarkable, and the skin tones, backgrounds and brushstrokes anticipate Velázquez and Caravaggio fifty years later, and influenced Manet and Whistler, three hundred years after that. His portrait of the aristocratic Isotta Brembati Grumelli is another work which he painted faithfully from life, and without preliminary drawings, recording her somewhat plain and oversized head, with a serious expression and direct gaze that suggest that this eloquent and cultured noblewoman did not take any prisoners, but her splendid robes and jewels are worked with the same attention to detail. As with many others, the background setting is of classical columns and engraved stone with an inscription in Spanish, otherwise his later portraits favour a dark grey wall. Portrait of a Lateran Canon (Basimo Zanchi?) has the sitter turn his head, with a faint, almost sardonic smile and a quizzical, raised eyebrow, saying to the viewer that he was a good-natured cleric with a sharp sense of humour.
The Last Supper is a curiosity, in that it is painted, not in landscape format, but in portrait, which means that the twelve apostles, plus an extra figure in the form of a priest carrying a flagon of wine, are rather bunched together. The figure of Christ looks directly at the viewer, as does the priest/sommelier, while all the rest are either listening or chatting amongst themselves. This painting was the most highly praised of his sacred works, of which Carlo Borromeo, the cardinal archbishop of Milan, said in 1575, that it was ‘an icon which does most honour to its subject’.
This is the first exhibition of Moroni’s work in the UK, and is a long overdue celebration of this outstanding painter, who was far ahead of his time and deserves to be rediscovered and broadcast to a wider audience.
Giovanni Battista Moroni
Royal Academy Sackler Galleries
Until 25 January 2015