On Monday I attended a talk in which the curator Arturo Galansino introduced the show "Giovanni Battista Moroni", opening on the 25th of October at the Royal Academy, and this is a short account on what he said, a little information if you are planning to visit.
The show is a very special occasion: it's the first UK show of Moroni in thirty years, and the Royal Academy's first old master's exhibition in a decade. And Moroni is a great master, unfortunately very little known to the general public!
The UK hosts the largest collection of Moroni outside Bergamo: the exhibition will feature forty paintings by him and five by other painters ( Lotto and Moretto among them).
Moroni was born in Albino, near Bergamo, around 1520. He studied close by, in Brescia, in the bottega of the painter Moretto. In his first works we can immediately notice some elements that will characterise all his work: an interest for texture and materials, the use of architecture to structure the space and most of all the striking realism.
Soon after establishing his independent practice he was called to Trento during the Council that decided the fate of the Catholic church. In that moment the town was a very important centre and Moroni produced some religious works that embodied the ideas of the Counter Reformation, looking at Lorenzo Lotto, who was twenty years his senior and had worked in Bergamo.
This painting, from a private collection, is an interesting example of a new kind of devotional work. Saint Ignatius of Loyola had written about some spiritual exercises: one of these was the so-called "orazione mentale", mental prayer, in which the faithful should concentrate and visualise a sacred scene. Moroni breaks up the architecture so that the vision is real and imagined at the same time.
In the second part of the show we will see the portraits of the 1550s, where his excellence in this genre starts to appear clearly. He paints some "ritratti esemplari", portraits of people who should be an example to emulate. Among these the elegant and truthful portrait of Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova from the Met. Notice the beautiful shadow of the veil on the collar !
The rooms dedicated to portraits from the 60's will be very spectacular. Moroni had an extraordinary ability to depict fabrics and clothes, his women are at the peak of fashion. We will see beautiful silks, embroidered fabrics, furs, jewels.
In time dresses change as political allegiances change: Bergamo was in Venetian territory but very close to the border with the Duchy of Milano, under Spanish rule. The Spaniards favoured black and so we see men increasingly wearing that colour and standing in front of Spanish mottos inscribed in architectural elements.
In Bergamo the aristocracy ended up taking parts and splitting in two very distinctive factions, pro-Venetians and pro-Spanish: in 1563 a high profile assassination in a church prompts Venice to try and re-establish its rule, and Moroni, who had often painted the opposition, decides to return to his small town of Albino. Here he will go back to making religious works and he will portray members of the bourgeoisie. It is then that he painted his famous "Tailor".
Scholars have given different interpretations of this work, including allegorical ones. Charles Eastlake, the famous director of the National Gallery, had bought this work from an Italian aristocrat nicknamed "Tagliapanni", literally fabric cutter but figuratively "a gossip", could this be his portrait in disguise? It was also said that our tailor is wearing a belt made to hold a sword, but further studies found that tailors did dress like that.
Galansino rejects different interpretations and is convinced that this is an earnest portrait. It is the first time that we see an artisan on canvas, and Moroni shows respect both for the man and for his trade. The painting has been compared to Degas' Women Ironing, it is a forerunner of XIX century taste.
A gentleman in black from the 1570s: it's Gian Gerolamo Albani,;belonging to a pro-Spanish family, he had been in jail in Venice and then in exile. Again there is a comparison to make with XIX century sensibility and Ingres' octopus-handed Louis-François Bertin.
Moroni was indeed a modern artist, he worked like an early photographer: sitters would go to his studio where they would be sat on the same prop chair, in front of the usual background, and made immortal.
In his time he was known by the cognoscenti but his was a small scale operation: he didn't have a bottega with students who would help him with the work and carry on his name.
He didn't leave an immediate and evident legacy however it would be difficult to imagine the work of his famous fellow countryman Caravaggio without knowing that he left for Rome with Moroni's realism in his pocket.
I am looking forward to the opening !