Provincial Unease

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.

Moroni’s religious pictures are less distinctive. This is somewhat ironic since he was in Trent during the early 1550s when the second phase of the Council of Trent was convened and the town was the centre of the Catholic world. Indeed the Council Fathers commissioned him to paint an altarpiece for the church where they met, Santa Maria Maggiore. It shows the Madonna and Child in Glory with the Doctors of the Church, but despite being in the very place where Catholic doctrine was being formulated, Moroni appears to have been unmoved by the momentousness of events and instead borrowed heavily on an earlier composition by his teacher Moretto. The result was a stilted and formulaic clustering of stock figures which for all its grace notes has none of the narrative exhilaration or fervour of, for example, Titian’s Assumption, painted more than 30 years earlier. The six altarpieces in the exhibition show that Moroni had little gift for invention.

A far more effective religious work is A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ, c.1555-60, which, despite the old-fashioned insertion of the patron into a religious setting has real devotional intimacy precisely because the patron is a portrait rather than an abstraction. The composition here is a curious one in which the young man has stumbled upon the Biblical scene and has fallen to prayer behind a broken marble wall like some pious voyeur. It conforms to emerging Counter-Reformation strictures and in particular Ignatius of Loyola’s idea of “mental prayer”, an imaginative sympathy with Christ to intensify the religious experience.

Moroni was clearly more at home with the temporal than the spiritual. The physical proximity of his sitters seemed to free him. Despite the repeated poses and props the portraits seemingly place the viewer in the presence not of paintings but of the people themselves.

The National Gallery, meanwhile, is disinterring a very different painter — the Norwegian Romantic Peder Balke (1804-1887). Balke’s career was short-lived and unsuccessful, so he turned instead to politics and building property for the poor. He was one of very few people to travel to the far north and his pictures of the arctic wilderness of the North Cape are extraordinary, capturing the essence of storms, snow and wildness and turning the place into a Wagnerian dreamscape. His paintings, late survivors of the Sturm und Drang sensibility, show a thrilling primordial land lying unsuspected off the edges of civilisation.

Although he had a formal artistic education, studied with the leading Norwegian landscapist Johan Christian Dahl and, from trips to Dresden, knew the work of Caspar David Friedrich, his own work is unique. The pictures are small in scale, restricted in palette, atmospheric rather than geographical and often improvised in the way they are painted (he used his fingers as well as brushes to apply the paint). Both the man and his art are fascinating oddities. 

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