Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Article excerpt

Giovanni Battista Moroni

Royal Academy, until 25 January 2015

Giovanni Battista Moroni, wrote Bernard Berenson, was 'the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced'. Indeed, Berenson continued, warming to his theme, 'even in later times, and in periods of miserable decline, that country, Mother of the arts, never had a son so uninventive, nay, so palsied, directly the model failed him'. It was a harsh judgment, but the great connoisseur inadvertently managed to put his finger on exactly what was so marvellous about his victim.

A splendid exhibition at the Royal Academy triumphantly demonstrates that when Moroni actually did have a model in front of him, he was one of the most remarkable painters of later 16th-century Europe. He was, however, one who does not seem to fit easily into his time and place.

A fellow visitor turned to me while I was gazing at the wonderful 'Portrait of an Elderly Man Seated with a Book' (c . 1575-9) and remarked, 'It's hard not to think one is looking at a 19th-century picture.' He was dead right (which in turn helps to explain why Moroni appealed so much to the Victorians, and consequently why the National Gallery has such a magnificent array of his work). The sobriety, the warts-and-all candour, the carefully depicted detail -- all of these give a powerful impression of absolute realism.

Moroni (c .1520/4-1579) actually included, if not the warts, certainly bulbous facial protrusions such as the bump in the centre of the august forehead of Gian Girolamo Albani, an aristocratic sitter. This refusal to flatter, however, is just an aspect of the truthfulness that makes one feel, in front of any of the portraits, that this is exactly what a particular person, who lived four and a half centuries ago, really looked like. Such accuracy, of course, was a 19th-century virtue.

The 'Portrait of an Elderly Man' (c .1575), dressed in black and seated in a chair against a neutral grey background, is reminiscent of Whistler's Carlyle -- except that the Moroni projects a much more powerful sense of personality. In different ways many of the superb array of portraits in the exhibition do the same. The 'Elderly Man' fixes you with a look of disconcerting intensity. The Spanish 'Don Gabriel de la Cueva' (1560), with sword prominently on display and motto announcing his fearlessness, could be a feuding hothead from Romeo and Juliet (the nobles of Bergamo were as prone to murderous vendetta as those of nearby Verona). …

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