Tuesday 9 April 2019

Renaissance Man: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Giovanni Battista Moroni's Portrait of a YoungWoman, ca. 1575, showing his virtuosity as a painter, the expressive eyes, the depiction of her rich jewels, the luxurious fabric of her gown and white lace. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Photograph: Michael Bodycomb.

A major exhibition of Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Battista Moroni's work has opened at The Frick in New York. It brings together Moroni’s most arresting and best known portraits, exploring the experimentation and innovation of these works. They are shown alongside jewellery, textiles, arms and armour that bring to life Moroni's 16th Century world, writes Antonio Visconti with additional reporting by Isabella Lancellotti
Moroni's work exhibited in the Oval Room
at The Frick in New York, showing the richness
and large scale of his full-length portraits.
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
THE Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Battista Moroni spent his career in his native town of Bergamo, in the Lombardy region northeast of Milan. He left a tremendous body of work, including numerous portraits, many more than those of his contemporaries who worked in important artistic centres, such as Titian in Venice and Bronzino in Florence. Although, Moroni never achieved their fame, he was a great innovator in portraiture.

In Renaissance Italy, one of the aims of portraiture was to make the absent person seem present through a naturalistic representation of the sitter. Moroni was a master of capturing his subject, although the proportions of the people in his portraits sometimes seem unnaturally compressed and they don't always have either the grandeur and perfection that Titian and Bronzino were able to bring to their paintings. But Moroni had an eye for detail and skilfully rendered fine jewels, rich fabrics and even intricately-painted curls of hair that appear to leap out of the picture frame with a sense of three dimensional realism.

The unidentified sitter in Portrait of a Young Woman (see main picture above) wears a pink brocade dress woven in silver and silver-gilt thread that Moroni has captured in all its Renaissance glory. The fabric of the gown warranted the painter's skill as it was the result of an extremely costly, labour-intensive process in which thin strands of precious metal are wound by hand around silk threads then brocaded into the fabric. The painstaking process is difficult to appreciate without close inspection of an actual piece of fabric made in this way.

In the Frick exhibition, called Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture, a fragment of a sixteenth-century brocade shows how deftly the physical and visual qualities of textiles were translated by Moroni into paint. It also demonstrates the extraordinary craftsmanship of the objects Moroni encountered through his sitters and the artistic challenges and opportunities they presented.

Moroni created both religious paintings and portraits but is best known for works that seem to show his sitters exactly as they appeared before him. According to an anecdote first published in 1648 in Carlo Ridolfi’s Le meraviglie dell’arte, Titian, when approached by a group of would-be patrons, recommended that they instead sit for Moroni, praising his ritratti di naturale (portraits from life). The naturalism for which Moroni was most acclaimed, however, also became a point of criticism: his apparent faithfulness to his models caused some to dismiss him as a mere copyist of nature, an artist without “art ~ that is, without selection, editing, or adherence to ideals of beauty.

In Renaissance Italy, one of the aims of portraiture was to make the absent person seem present through a naturalistic representation of the sitter

The artist was one of the most prolific portrait painters
in Renaissance Italy, as seen in the exhibition's numerous
works in The Frick's East Gallery.
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Bernard Berenson derided Moroni in 1907 as an uninventive portraitist who “gives us sitters no doubt as to how they looked.”

Subsequent scholars restored his reputation; the art historian Roberto Longhi, for example, in 1953 praised Moroni’s “documents” of society that were unmediated by style, crediting him with a naturalism that anticipated Caravaggio.

But Moroni’s characterization as an artist who faithfully recorded the world around him ~ whether understood as a positive quality or a weakness ~ has obscured his creativity and innovation as a portraitist.

Moroni was born in the early 1520s in Albino, a small city less than ten miles from Bergamo. Although it was part of the Venetian Republic during the sixteenth century, Bergamo was geographically ~ and, in some ways, culturally closer ~ to the Duchy of Milan, then under Spanish rule. Moroni encountered clients, fashions, and luxury goods from both Milan and Venice, which offered an entrée to a wider more international world of different cultures.

Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli,
called The Man in Pink,
Dated 1560, oil on canvas
Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni,
Bergamo Lucretia Moroni Collection
Photo: Mauro Magliani
In the early 1540s, Moroni trained in Brescia in the workshop of Moretto da Brescia. The paintings of Lorenzo Lotto, who spent more than a decade in Bergamo in the first quarter of the Cinquecento, were also a significant influence.

After brief periods in Trent during the late 1540s and early 1550s, Moroni worked from the mid-1550s predominantly in his native Albino and Bergamo, providing local clientele with religious paintings and startlingly lifelike portraits.

He achieved his characteristic naturalism through exacting attention to detail, psychologically potent and vivid expressions, and a “warts and all” approach that, at times, resulted in seemingly unidealised portrayals.

For example, his Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova conveys with emphatic clarity his sitter’s goiter, her sagging neck, wrinkled skin, and other features that do not conform to Renaissance ideals of female beauty. At the same time, she is as dignified as his most dashing cavalieri, including the celebrated Man in Pink (see at right).

This portrait, dated 1560, commemorates an event in Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli's life, but to what specific aspect of his biography it corresponds remains unknown. The antique torso represented in the painting is an allegorical sculpture suggesting the learning of the classical world. A relief on the wall to the right of Grumelli depicts the biblical scene of the Prophet Elijah ascending to heaven, and letting fall to his successor, Elisha, his miraculous cloak.

On the ground is a fragment of an antique sculpture that appears to have toppled from a niche, only the sculpture’s right foot remains, possibly alluding to the passage of time or the succession of the ages. The Spanish inscription ~ MAS EL ÇAGUERO QUE EL PRIMERO (More to him who follows than the first)~ seems also to refer to succession.

Moroni’s most famous painting, The Tailor (see below), is unusual for its portrayal of a tradesman at work. It has impressed viewers for centuries with its lifelikeness and suspended action. In 1660, Marco Boschini, in his celebrated poem about Venetian painting, La carta del navegar pittoresco, proclaims Moroni’s Tailor so lifelike that it seems able to speak “more eloquently than a lawyer.” Paintings like The Tailor anticipate the narrative portraits for which Rembrandt would be celebrated the following century.

Moroni achieved his characteristic naturalism through exacting attention to detail and psychologically potent and vivid expressions

The Tailor, (Il Sarto or Il Tagliapanni)
ca. 1570, oil on canvas;
The National Gallery, London
Photo:©The National Gallery, London
Scholars have debated the precise meaning of The Tailor, prompting consideration of the social status of Moroni’s clientele: does the painting simply present a tailor carrying out his daily tasks, or is it an allegorical portrayal of the unidentified man’s family name (one such as Tagliapanni, meaning “cloth-cutter”)?

Based on the sitter’s clothing ~ fashionable and costly though made of wool, rather than the more expensive silk ~ the painting most likely depicts a well-to-do tailor.

A portrait of the sculptor Alessandro Vittoria was presumably painted early in Moroni’s career, when both artists were in Trent in the early 1550s. It shares a number of qualities with The Tailor, above all the portrayal of the figure as if suspended in an act related to his profession, here addressing the viewer as if interrupted while presenting, studying, or working on a sculpture.

Vittoria’s sleeve is rolled up to reveal his muscular forearm, as if to suggest the physical strength that sculpting requires. He owned at least five painted portraits of himself, and Moroni’s is probably one of two large paintings listed in the inventory of the sculptor’s possessions.

Moroni’s surviving works suggest that he offered his clients relatively standard bust, half- and three-quarter-length, and full-length portraits. Interestingly, he produced at least three full-length portraits of women, a format typically reserved in Europe for depicting men of the highest social rank. Two of these, Isotta Brembati (see below) and Lucia Albani (National Gallery, London), present the women seated majestically in Dante chairs.

Moroni's Isotta Brembati, ca. 1555–56
Oil on canvas. Fondazione Museo
di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo
Lucretia Moroni Collection
Photo: Fondazione Museo di
Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo
The spectacular green and gold dress worn by Isotta Brembati (see at left) seems to be painted with precision; however, considering the weaving techniques used during the sixteenth century, it would be extremely unusual for the repeating pattern of a textile to increase in scale, as it does in the portrait, from the bodice to the skirt. Though the dress may have been based on one worn by the sitter, Moroni appears to have manipulated the pattern for heightened visual effect; his painted portrayal may lie somewhere between fact and fiction.
The other luxury items with which Isotta is depicted ~ the fan, a pendant cross of rubies, emerald, and pearls and the marten fur ~ also may have been embellished or altered for the portrait. Rare surviving examples of each type of object are included in the exhibition.

The objects also enable viewers to better grasp the discrepancies between Moroni’s paintings and the reality they purportedly record. Though marten furs were highly popular among elite women during the Italian Renaissance, very few have survived. The example included in the exhibition is the only one with a gold head with precious stones and enamel (see below).  It is composed of a sheet  of gold, hammered paper thin and chased to simulate fur, adorned with enamel, pearls, garnets, and a ruby.

The artist produced at least three full-length portraits of women, a format typically reserved in Europe for depicting men of the highest social rank

The extraordinary Venetian gold and jewel-encrusted
Marten's Head, ca. 1550–59 .A similar one is
depicted in the portrait of Isotta Brembati.
Gold with enamel, rubies, garnets, and pearls;
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore;
Museum acquisition by exchange, 1967.
Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The gold marten's display alongside Moroni’s painting ~ in which the sitter’s marten fur with an enamelled gold head drapes casually around her neck ~ underscores the opulence of this accessory as well as its duality, being at once beautiful and grotesque.

The artist’s visually stunning representations of sitters of different social ranks have been appreciated as “documents,” but not sufficiently as innovations. Perhaps it is because of the relative freedom Moroni enjoyed outside the major artistic centres that he was able to exercise the moments of license and experimentation that complicate traditional notions of him as a mere documentarian.

Moroni's Pace Rivola Spini, the pendant of Bernardo Spini (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo), is arguably the first full-length portrait of a standing woman shown alone, painted during the Italian Renaissance (see Spini portraits below). 

Because of the freedom Moroni enjoyed working outside major artistic centres he was able  to be more experimental as a portraitist
Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Lucia Bernardo Spini
and Pace Rivola Spini, ca. 1573-75,
Alabastro d’Orta, oil on canvas,
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo;
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Using this format for his depiction of a relatively unknown noblewoman of Albino, Moroni defies portraiture’s conventional social hierarchies. The choice of format raises questions about the nature of the commission and who suggested that Pace Rivola Spini be portrayed in this way: the painter, the sitter, or her husband. Unfortunately, no document related to this portrait (or any other by Moroni) has come to light
Moroni may have first encountered full-length portraiture through his teacher, Moretto, who is credited as the first artist of the Italian Renaissance to paint, in 1526, a full-length portrait of a standing man (Portrait of a Gentleman, now in the National Gallery, London).

The various full-length portraits Moroni painted throughout his career demonstrate his diverse approach to the format, from the austere Spini pendants to the sensational Man in Pink (see above), a composition enriched with allegorical imagery.

 Moroni's Pace Rivola Spini is the first full-length portrait of a standing woman shown alone, painted during the Italian Renaissance

Among Moroni’s inventions is a genre of so-called “sacred portraits.” These originated from the tradition of donor portraits, which depict individuals (usually the person who commissioned the work) alongside sacred figures. Moroni’s three surviving sacred portraits are brought together for the first time in the exhibition, calling attention to the varied roles that portraiture played during his time. Presumably intended for domestic settings, Moroni’s sacred portraits, including Two Donors in Adoration before the Madonna and Child and St. Michael, are distinguished by the scale and the naturalistic depiction of the people of the time in relation to the divine figures.

Moroni's sacred portrait of Two Donors
in Adoration Before the Madonna
and Child and St Michael, ca. 1557-60
Oil on Canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,
Richmond. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund
Photo:Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Katherine Wetzel
In a departure from the tradition of donor portraits, in which the donors are subordinate to the divine beings they worship, the sitters of Moroni’s sacred portraits dominate the composition. Stylistic disparity also plays a significant role in these paintings. Moroni applied his strengths in naturalism to the depiction of human beings, those he saw and studied with his own eyes, but not to imagining the divine. His sacred figures are rendered in a more stylised mode, often modelled on earlier devotional images.

For example, in Two Donors, the unidentified couple appears to have been studied from life while Saint Michael and the Madonna and Child are reproduced from figures in an altarpiece of about 1540–45 by his teacher, Moretto da Brescia, in Verona’s Church of Sant’Eufemia.

This and Moroni’s other sacred portraits dispel the notion that his works were unmediated by style. It has been convincingly argued that Moroni’s sacred portraits present the sitters practising a kind of meditative prayer popularised by the Exercitia Spiritualia (Spiritual Exercises) of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1548). The text instructs devotees to contemplate sin and episodes of Christ’s life and afterlife, imagining the use of their five senses to fully immerse themselves in the experience.

Thus in the portraits, the divine figures would represent the objects of the devotee’s contemplation. Included in the exhibition, a first edition of the Exercitia Spiritualia from the collection of the Library of Congress represents the popular practice of using a material aid like a prayer book to achieve spiritual enlightenment. As Moroni’s sacred portraits may record the practice of a particular type of prayer, they also emphasise the sitters’ religious piety (an important aspect of social respectability), and, as part-sacred image, they memorialise the sitter in perpetual association with the divine.

The painter's three surviving sacred portraits are brought together for the first time, calling attention to the varied roles that portraiture played during the Renaissance

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Lucia Albani Avogadro,
called La Dama in Rosso
(The Lady in Red), ca. 1554–57.
 Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London
Photo: © The National Gallery
The exhibition at The Frick draws attention to the remarkable achievement of this artist's portraiture and brings to life a Renaissance society at the crossroads of the Venetian Republic and Spanish-ruled Milan.

The exhibition was organised by Aimee Ng, Associate Curator, The Frick Collection; Simone Facchinetti, Curator, Museo Adriano Bernareggi, Bergamo; and Arturo Galansino, Director General, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. The show is presented in the Frick’s main floor Oval Room and East Gallery and is accompanied by a catalogue and series of public programs.

In conjunction with this major exhibition, The Frick Collection and Scala Art Publishers have produced the most extensive scholarly assessment in English of Moroni’s portraits to date.

The book, Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture, features two illuminating essays by the show’s curators Aimee Ng, Simone Facchinetti, and Arturo Galansino. These along with another thirty-seven entries, provide new insights into the artist and his sitters and reveal Moroni’s creativity in translating his world into paint. The book is available in the Museum Shop or can be ordered through the Frick’s Website.

Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture is at The Frick, 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue, New York, until June 2nd  2019.

Subscribe to support our independent and original journalism, photography, artwork and film.