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Mar 20 / Simon

Master portrait painter

The London Magazine, Feb/March 2015
Simon Tait

Giovanni Battista Moroni
Royal Academy, 22 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.

It hit the arts establishment of 18th century London, such that it was, like a slap in the face – the very idea that this “art form” that actually was no more than vanity-commissioning for the very rich so they could themselves as gods and goddesses – could actually be compared with the majesty of Claude, the illuminating composition of Rubens, the profound mystery of Rembrandt. Unthinkable.

Yet it was nothing new, and Reynolds’s eventually successful case was no more than a rebirth of the cult of portraiture of the soul of a couple of centuries before. That had happened in a small town in northern Italy, with the brushes of a painter of whom little is known, whose name is seldom uttered, and who seldom strayed far from his own birthplace, Albino in Llombardy, 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 Batista 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.

Where 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 explosive embodiment of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, when the future of the where he 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, and although he is punctilious in using the same models for characters – St Catherine for instance, a favourite subject – there is no soul in these holy figures.

But Moroni also started to get portrait commissions, which 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 in the act of speech; or Giovanni Luigi Seradobati of around 1559 in which the notary is relaxed, sitting in a chair with a book in his left-handed for which we have just distracted him to make 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; 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.

Back in Bergamo Moroni’s star was reaching its zenith with the leading families all seeking him out and he was part of an elite group of intellectuals – poets, painters, doctors, lawyers.

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. One of the leading literary figures of Bergamo society was Isotta Brembatti, but she is portrayed 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 and undersized fan) hanging form her wrist, and not reference anywhere to her poetic accomplishments.

Portrait of Doctor is clearly a mate though unnamed, who is given the sideways chair treatment to relax him, and looks genially at the viewer while in his left hand is a letter from the artist.

In the 1560s and 70s Moroni returns to religious commissions, but now with all the assurance of a master that allows him top be inventive with his composition. 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 if 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 win waiter, standing behind Christ with the flask that bears his blood, looking straight at the viewer and dressed in sober 16th century attire, clearly the patron of this painting who is given a place in the composition superior to that of Christ himself.

In the 1570s Moroni excels everything he has done before, instilling narrative in even the most uncomplicated image. The very poignant Portrait of 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 chatelaine in the absence of her dead mother; the younger girl confused and looking 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.

And the mysterious tailor, unnamed but opulently dressed. The portrayal of tradesman 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 piece de resistance is the Portrait of a Young Lady painted in about 1575, four years befgore Moroni’s death. IT is a glorious manifestation of all the skills of a master portyrait painter has accrued over a lifetime. The silk of her embroidered bodice glistens, the complexities of her heavy necklace with its gold tracery in which is nestling clusters of pearls; her crisply starched ruff with its intricate tracery casting light up into what should be a beautiful face. It is, 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 the snapshot painter has caught. This is a young woman 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 is beyond the reach of art, except for this artist’s.