detail from: 'A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ', c1555-60; Oil on canvas, 112.8 x 104cm Gerolamo & Roberta Etro; Photo © Gerolamo & Roberta Etro

The Best 16th Century Painter You've Never Heard Of...

31st October 2014

Giovanni Battista Moroni… who he? Jill Glenn goes to the Royal Academy to find out.

I find that I approach exhibitions flagged as ‘long overdue’ and ‘an artist… ripe for rediscovery’ with a certain amount of caution. It’s alarming when the marketing is based of trying to promote an unknown painter, to big up their greatness, and the over-enthusiastic spiel can smack of desperation. ‘Unsung genius of the Renaissance’? I’ll be the judge of that, thank you. Never have I relinquished my cynicism so quickly, though, as I did at the Royal Academy’s latest. I declare myself a convert.

‘The best 16th century painter you’ve never heard of is a big claim’, but it’s entirely justified in this instance. This is the first major showing of Moroni’s work outside Italy – and you have to ask, why have we waited so long?

Located in the Sackler Wing, the exhibition is intimate, considered, scholarly – and beautifully designed, in keeping with Moroni’s own careful use of colour: light grey walls for Rooms I and II, dark mulberry in III and VI, smartly counterbalancing the opulence all around, charcoal for the severer works and altarpieces of rooms IV and V.

Giovanni Moroni (c 1521/24–1579/80) was primarily a portraitist, although the RA has included several fine religious works, a genre for which he is lesser known but at which he is no less skilled. His portraits are exquisite and intriguing, and he captures his sitters with rare subtlety. For all his talent, though – and his immediacy was way ahead of its time – his social and artistic sphere was small, and he was little known, except in his own locality, during his lifetime. The son of a stonemason, he was born in Albino, in the northern Italian province of Bergamo, trained in nearby Brescia, and rarely travelled outside the area. Geographically, therefore, you’d have to call him a provincial painter, but stylistically that has to be an insult.

His works depict members of the society in which he lived, a cast of compelling Renaissance characters, whose lives played out the feuds and family dramas of a pro-Spanish aristocracy living under the Republic of Venice. As well as the elegant hosts and intellectuals of high society, though, he also paints members of the middle classes. The Tailor, left, for example, is the first known portrait of a man engaged in manual labour, and the subject’s self-confidence and self-possession is striking. In its time it was considered revolutionary.

Moroni also offers a vivid record of the fashions and fortunes of those around him, and his skill in painting costume is particularly noteworthy. You can touch these textures. Your fingers itch to check out the nap of the velvet, the sheen of the silk. It’s rather reductive, though, to concentrate on this as what is good. It’s only part of what is good. Moroni’s greatness lies in what he does with his technique, not in the technique itself.

These people are so real, so alive. He pays his sitters the compliment of showing their true selves, inner and outer. More than once the exhibition’s curator, Arturo Galansino, observed ‘she’s not beautiful’ of Portrait of Lucrezia Vertova Algiardi, 1557 – but I beg to differ. Yes, she’s elderly, her skin is wrinkled, and she has a noticeable goitre, but her devout and steadfast spirit shines. She’s not looking at us, not trying to build a relationship with us – her gaze is somewhere in the middle distance as her hands finger the prayer book in front of her – but she’s utterly compelling. This was a portrait painted to show Lucrezia as an example of virtue (she’d personally supervised the building of the church of Sant’Anna in Albino) but it’s strikingly realistic for all its grand intentions. Realism, of course, was not a recognised term or concept in the mid-sixteenth century. Galansino apologises for using it, but it’s hard to think of another so accurate.

Rooms 1 and 2 set the scene, and include a couple of works by Moroni’s teacher, Moretto, including one which the curators are considering may now actually be an early Moroni. This question of new attribution is interesting, and the early religious works are pleasing in their own way, but it’s when we start seeing portraiture that the show really starts to come alive, and the delicacy of Moroni’s control of oils and brush and imagination becomes apparent.

Young Lady, c1560-65; private collection

The quiet intensity of Room 2 gives way to lavish aristocratic portraits in Room 3. This is an astonishing selection. Wherever you stand, wherever you look, there’s someone looking back at you. You can’t catch them out. Whether it’s Pietro Secco Suardo, Venetian ambassador, tall and handsome all in black, or Lucia Albano Avogadro, well-known poet, ‘celebrated for her literary talents, her manners and her beauty’, or Isotta Brembati, also a poet, proficient in three languages, whose demure appearance betrays nothing of her intellectual preoccupations, they are all engaging with us as their viewers. It’s a room that’s hard to leave, actually, although the next repays your attention just as much.

Room 4 represents the next stage of Moroni’s life, when he had been forced by political upheaval to leave the city of Bergamo and return to his native Albino. He set in motion a quiet artistic revolution with his ‘portraits from nature’ of less elevated individuals. He painted ‘as large as life’, as the catalogue tells us, and did so by standing in front of his model and working spontaneously. He almost never undertook preparatory work, and the results are superb: less opulent than his aristocrats, but no less attractive. He catches the half smile, the quizzical look, the shy embarrassment of sitters whose names are lost to us now, but whom we’d undoubtedly recognise if we saw them again. They’re so real – that word again: their life force bursts from the canvas.

Unfairly perhaps, and largely by reasons of size, The Last Supper dominates Room 4. It’s wonderfully composed and beautifully colour-managed, with perfect manipulation of the light falling on the folds of the fabric. It echoes and develops the ‘mental prayer’ painting from the early years: the inclusion of a contemporary figure, here as the host at the last supper, suggesting that we as audience are inside his vision and looking at him at the same time. Loyola. It’s a neat combination of portrait and religious imagery.

Moroni’s portraits, in the last room, show him working in his own community. Indeed, says Galansino, Moroni knew everyone on these walls: they were neighbours, friends, colleagues in local government. These works have an anachronistic, almost photographic feel to them. Three of his sitters, for example, were painted in the same chair, against the same wall, holding the same yellow book. It’s a very modern idea.

It’s impossible not to lose your heart – and your head – to Moroni. He’s at his best, in my opinion, when wholly focused on his sitter. His ability to penetrate their psychology is almost intrusive, and his surprisingly wide social spectrum hints at a man with wide interests and easy manners. I might just add him to my fantasy dinner party guest list.

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