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Gifted painter from nature

02 January 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Royal Academy's Moroni exhibition

Gerolamo and Roberta Etro

Devout example: A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ, c.1555-60, by Giovanni Battista Moroni, on loan from Gerolamo and Roberta Etro for the current exhibition at the Royal Academy

Devout example: A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ, c.1555-60, by Giovanni Battista Moroni, on loan from Gerolamo and Roberta Etr...

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 Charles Borromeo.

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 constant change.

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 Bergamo.

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 day.

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 earlier (c.1553).

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 vainglorious boast.

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 religious living.

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 Canon Regular.

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 Betrothed.

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 approbation.

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 in Bergamo.

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.


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