The first known portrait of a skilled manual worker: "The Tailor" (1565-70) by Giovanni Battista Moroni (image: The National Gallery)
This is a good time to be an overlooked Renaissance master. A couple of years ago Federico Barocci was exhumed by the National Gallery, dusted down after centuries of neglect and revealed as a significant painter of the late 16th century. Now it is Giovanni Battista Moroni's turn.
Moroni, c.1520-1579, has also been hiding in plain sight. Because he lived and worked outside a courtly sphere, in an arc of towns to the north east of Milan — Bergamo, Brescia, Trent and Albino — he existed outside the artistic mainstream. He was, however, widely collected in the 19th century and indeed London has the greatest number of his paintings after his native Bergamo. Nevertheless, despite being a portraitist of unusual acuity, whose subjects included the working man as well as the well-to-do, and a religious painter of distinction, he faded from view. If Moroni has been known for anything it is as a painter with an unrivalled mastery of black.
The exhibition of 45 of his pictures at the Royal Academy is his first major outing since an earlier "rediscovery" exhibition in Bergamo in 1979. He is well worth re-rediscovering. Titian praised Moroni as a painter who made his portraits "from nature" and while the best portraitists are routinely praised for the "psychological insight" evident in their works Moroni's nevertheless have an exceptional degree of interaction with the viewer. There is rarely anything innovative about his poses but his sitters frequently look out of the picture from the corner of their eyes, as if the painter had caught their attention wandering and suddenly spoken to them to make them look at him again. It is that unguarded instant he paints.
He was unusual too in the breadth of his clientèle. He painted not just minor grandees and their scions but figures from Bergamo's literary world, such as the female writer Isotta Brembati, as well as tradesmen. His portrait of The Tailor, 1565-70, is the first known portrait in Renaissance art of a man involved in skilled manual work: replace the shears in his hand with a sword and he would pass for a provincial buck — his dignity is in no way compromised by his trade (indeed tailors, like today's couturiers, could become spectacularly rich).
There is often too a slight wariness to his sitters, as perhaps befits their provincial status. While some, such as the elderly local nabob Gian Girolamo Albani, painted c.1570 in a fur-trimmed gown that echoes his white beard (is he the sitter for Veronese's 1555 Portrait of a Gentleman in the Pitti Palace as an older man?), are at ease in front of the painter others have an appealing self-consciousness. Isotta Brembati, for example, despite her spectacular damask gown of green and gold, looks deeply uncomfortable to be the subject of his gaze. Gian Gerolamo Grumelli — painted c.1560 — a young man standing in a stage-set Classical villa and dressed head to toe in the coral pink of his family's coat of arms, is an extraordinarily unlikely cavalier.