IT SEEMS incredible that it is now more than 35 years ago that
the National Gallery staged a small but mouthwatering sample of
Moroni's work on the eve of the 400th anniversary of the
north-Italian artist's death.
Giovanni Battista Moroni was born in Lombardy around 1520. Apart
from several crucial years when he lived in Trent, during the first
and second sessions of the Council that had been convoked there by
the pope, he remained faithful to his native town of Albino and to
the city of Bergamo, where he was the most noted portrait-painter
of his day.
He never seems to have gone to Venice, the capital of the
territory in which he worked, and, if anything, his outlook was
more centred on Milan, then dominated by the interests of Spain.
Absent from his paintings is the coloration of Veronese and of
Titian, whereas they include the observation of still lives so
characteristic of Lombardy. Increasingly after 1564, his
spirituality came to reflect that of the reforming archbishop
He was the outstanding pupil of Alessandro Bonvicino, known as
Moretto (c.1498-1554), and his reputation had certainly
spread from Lombardy as far as La Serenissima: Titian is
said to have recommended to the Venetian provincial Rectors posted
to Bergamo that they "should have their portrait painted by Moroni,
who would make them from nature".
It may have been easier for an artist in the provinces to paint
directly from nature to avoid flattering his subjects (as Titian
undoubtedly was paid to do, and as Tintoretto often did); but the
results are thrillingly immediate in a revolutionary way, and
Moroni is often dubbed the father of modern portraiture.
As a result, we are welcomed into the world of the Cinquecento
with an immediacy and an honesty that is remarkable. Whether it is
in the distracted gaze of an unnamed poet or in the ironical
question of a canon, individual faces alert us to a world of
Moroni portrayed the wealthy and the influential, but seems
almost more at home among the artisan class and with the urban
middle-class of his home valley and town. His father was a well
regarded stonemason, and the artist himself rose to hold civic
office in this community, which lies to the north-east of
He was pious enough to support the charitable work of the
Consorzio della Misericordia, and in later years turned almost
exclusively to painting new altarpieces to replace older ones
deemed inappropriate at the Council of Trent.
In the third room of the current exhibition, eight aristocratic
patrons are celebrated in all their full-length or
three-quarter-length finery. All of them date from around 1560, and
not only attest Moroni's skill as a portraitist, but also suggest
something of the history behind the powerful cliques of the
Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli (1536-1610), in a portrait always
known as "The man in pink", who was widowed at the age of 25, is
here hung next to his second wife and sister-in-law, Isotta
Brembati, whose fur wrap terminates in a marten's death's head,
tricked out in gold. His portrait is dated to 1560, the year in
which his first wife died, while hers is reckoned to be seven years
A broken classical statue behind him and a relief depicting
Elijah being taken up into heaven and casting down his mantle upon
Elisha testify to his belief that Christianity had triumphed over
paganism. Read in this light, the seemingly enigmatic inscription
"Better the latter than the former" could also look forward to his
marriage to a woman who was some six years his senior.
Her families were long-standing enemies of the Avogadro, shown
on the opposite gallery wall. Count Faustino Avogadro and his wife,
Lucia Albani, had fled Bergamo for the relative safety of Ferrara
after the assassination of one of the Brembati. In the National
Gallery portrait, he appears haughty, even though he is wounded in
the left foot. The following year he fell to his death in a well,
having stumbled into it, it was said, in a state of inebriation.
The oldest trick in the book, I concluded.
Gabriel de la Cueva was Viceroy of Naples at the time when he
sat to Moroni. He later became the 5th Duke of Albuquerque (1563),
and served as Governor of Milan (1564-71). He, too, was something
of a braggart, and the Berlin portrait is inscribed with his
vaunting motto: "I am here without fear and have no fear of death."
In the mouth of an ecclesiastic, this might be an apprehension of
St Paul's "Death is swallowed up in victory," but it is here as a
Moroni did, however, often have commissions for churchmen and
-women, some of whom avoided antagonism, and positively gloried in
doing good. Either side of the doorway from the second room two
older persons look at one another. Although not related (as had
long been thought), their lives inhabited the same world in 1557,
when they were painted. Their starkly realistic faces gaze out half
towards each other with the bitter sweet mix of calm loneliness and
wistful content that often comes with age and after years of
She is Lucrezia Vertova, née Agliardi, the widowed foundress of
a nunnery in Albino. She had married at the end of the 15th
century, and after she was widowed in 1516 she had founded the
church and conventual house (in 1525).
She was well into her mid- to late- seventies when Moroni
painted her, six years after the nunnery was completed
(Metropolitan Museum, New York).
He is Fra' Michele da Brescia (private collection), who restored
peace between two rival families in Albino and Bergamo: "I
protected the Church with Justice." Moroni would have known both
the Spini and Pulzini families well; whether the force of Lenten
sermons registers in the old Augustinian's eye is a moot point.
Two Lateran Canons, Giovanni Crisostomo Zanchi, Prior of the
Bergamo Augustinians, and his brother Basilio Zanchi, appear among
the smaller, and, no doubt, private commissions in the next room.
Whereas Giovanni Crisostomo rose to be Rector General of the Order
in 1559 (possibly the occasion of his portrait), Basilio's fortunes
took a downturn soon after his portrait. He had served as a curator
of the Vatican Library from 1550 to 1558, but was dismissed for
espousing the Lutheran heresy, and, even though he recanted in
1567, he was imprisoned for life. It would be fascinating to find
if Moroni ever painted their third brother, Dionigi, who was also a
From this small show of just 44 paintings (and one superlative
drawing), it is possible to plunge into the world of
Counter-Reformation change across a Lombardy that Alessandro
Manzoni captured so well in his 1827 novel The
But it is also possible to enter the artist's own personal
world. We do not know the identity of the doctor who has been
interrupted as he reads at his desk (Brescia), but the artist
evidently did, since the letter he is seen holding is signed GB
Moroni, and is dated 20 Feb MDLX. Half-turned towards us, and
sitting back into his chair, the sitter appears very much to be at
peace with himself.
The last portrait we get to see is possibly Moroni's best known,
and is much loved when on show in the National Gallery. The tailor
who stands before us is about to cut into a piece of broadcloth
marked up before him. He is clearly a man of some reputation (he
wears a sword belt) and not just a humble artisan, such that, as
early as 1660, his eloquent likeness was reckoned more than the
words of any lawyer.
Exceptionally, the Royal Academy has been able to bring together
a range of Moroni's religious works, both those commissioned for
private devotions, in which the devotee contemplates a Gospel story
as if engaged in "visualising" mental prayer in the Ignatian
manner, and those painted as altarpieces.
Moroni's ecclesiastical work had got off to a false start in
1551 during the Council of Trent, when the Bishop of Bergamo, his
first patron, was caught up in investigations of the Inquisition,
and it was not until the following decade that he worked with full
The exhibition brings together altarpieces from side chapels in
the parishes of Albino, Almenno, and Gorlago (a
Crucifixion that includes St Sebastian, suggesting that it
can be dated to the year after an outbreak of the plague there in
1574), as well as from the city church of S. Alessandro della Croce
Moroni painted one of the first large-scale treatments of the
doctrine of transubstantiation when he painted a Last
Supper for a lay confraternity dedicated to the Blessed
Sacrament in the church of S. Maria Assunta in Romano di Lombardia
(1565-69). It is there that the work usually is to be found.
The composition derives ultimately from a celebrated altarpiece
by his old tutor Moretto (Brescia San Giovanni Evangelista), but it
is a more didactic piece. It is conjectured that the parish priest
doubles up as the steward behind the table in the Upper Room. He is
about to pass the wine cruet to Jesus, and has a linen cloth,
broadly reminiscent of a stole, draped over his left shoulder, as a
deacon at the mass would wear. His is the face that looks out at us
as if transfixed by the Real Presence.
"Giovanni Battista Moroni" is at the Royal Academy,
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 25 January. Phone
020 7300 8000.