Meeting Moroni: Italian Renaissance Genius To Get His Due At Last

For Christmas one year, when I was around 10 years old or so, I received a massive book on the National Gallery of Art here in DC. I count it as one of the seminal reference works that got me started on learning about Western art, as it features about 1,000 works from the NGA collection along with accompanying essays and analysis from critics, historians, and technical experts, as well as copious notes and bibliographical materials. Among the artists surveyed was Giovanni Battista Moroni (1525-1578), who at the time was characterized as a mid-level painter with some skill in portraiture. There are three Moroni portraits in the collection of the NGA, and even at a young age, I was always drawn to these images, because I thought them far better works than the commentators appeared to suggest in the text.

With that in mind, I was very pleased to read just recently that the Frick in New York will be mounting a show early next year celebrating Moroni’s portraiture, which will be the first major exhibition of the artist’s work ever held in this country.

One of Moroni’s most famous portraits, which will be in the Frick show, is a late work known as “The Tailor” (c. 1570-1575), from the National Gallery in London. It depicts an unknown man at work cutting a garment on a table, who has paused and is looking out at the viewer. It is a very direct, deceptively simple image, which because of its simplicity can make it easy to overlook some of the wonderful detail in the piece. Notice for example the carefully observed details of the sheen on the metal belt buckles, and the tiny bit of warm reflection off of the gold signet ring which the man is wearing on the pinkie of his right hand, that contrasts with the cool reflection off the curve of the handle of the steel scissors just next to it. [N.B. I must say, Brits, the painting looks like it could do with a good clean.]


The sitters in Moroni’s paintings are often dignified, stylish individuals, but while their attire may seem somewhat outlandish to us today, there is nevertheless something about the way in which Moroni paints them that seems to make them exist out of time, in a way that few of the artist’s contemporaries were able to accomplish. Take a look at his portrait of Prospero Alessandri from 1560 for example, which is in the princely collections of Liechtenstein. Yes, that outfit is rather something, but if you focus on the face and the relaxed pose, rather than the garments – which, admittedly, are beautifully represented by the artist – he would not look out of place if you ran into him at your local microbrew pub:


Similarly, look at the intense, sunburnt, battle-weary face of Gabriel de la Cueva y Girón, later the 4th Duke of Alburquerque, one of the Grandees of Spain. This was a man who had spent a great deal of time in the saddle and on the battlefront with his troops, and as a younger son never expected to end up with what we might call a “desk job”. Yet within three years of Moroni painting this picture the sitter’s brother, the 3rd Duke, had died without heirs, and de la Cueva inherited the Dukedom, as well as being made governor of Milan. The Spanish inscription on the plinth next to him is a couplet which (roughly) translates, “Here I am without fear, and of death I do not dread.” I doubt the Lombards dared to complain to him very often about the Spanish occupation.


Then there is the portrait usually called “The Man in Pink”, but more properly, it is Moroni’s portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli, painted about the same time as the preceding two portraits. Here we see an aristocratic Lombard dandy in full plumage, ready to mingle with the other dandies at the Spanish court in Milan. Grumelli was a well-liked and successful lawyer from an important family in Bergamo, who became a government official and professional archivist. He married three times (he was widowed twice), fathered many children, and was a close friend and advisor to St. Charles Borromeo about how to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. In the past, pink was considered the preferred color for boys in the same way that blue is now, but the added twist here is that the Grumelli family crest bore a piece of pink coral on it, meaning that pink was not just a fashionable color for them, but a heraldic one as well.


Despite the skill demonstrated in these portraits, Moroni was not particularly good at straight-on religious paintings. However, he was adept at creating an updated version of what had been a traditional Christian artistic concept from the Byzantine and Romanesque through the Gothic and mid-Renaissance: the image of a donor, i.e. patron, depicted in prayer alongside saints or in Biblical scenes that had significance to that patron. This was a type of art that gradually died out beginning around Moroni’s time, when we begin to see fewer and fewer images of a patron alongside, say, the Nativity or surrounded by saints, and in some ways Moroni’s work is a kind of last gasp of that art form.

For example, in Moroni’s “A Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna” (c. 1560) here in the National Gallery, which was the first piece of his that really caught my attention as a child, we see a man in stylish 16th-century attire praying before the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The picture is quiet and still, while the flesh tones are warm and real. Similarly, in Moroni’s “A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ” (c.1555-60), in a private collection, a more somberly dressed young man is shown witnessing Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan from behind some classical ruins:


As an aside, I have to say that for many reasons, The Frick has become my favorite museum in New York, hands down. While not as vast a collection as that at The Met just up the street, both the permanent collection and the special exhibitions at the museum, the former 5th Avenue mansion of financier Henry Clay Frick, have never failed to please, educate, and inspire every time I visit. Its curatorial staff has taste and style, and doesn’t dumb down its shows in the way that The Met and many other major museums have done in recent years, in an effort to try to attract more visitors. On my most recent visit, to review “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, there were certainly plenty of visitors, but not such a crushing throng as to be unable to sit and quietly look at and think about the art on display. And while there seems to be a continuing see-saw of conflict between the museum’s desire to expand and the NIMBYism of its neighbors, hopefully the ability to show not only more of the works in its permanent collection but also to host larger exhibitions, lectures, and other events, will soon come to fruition.

“Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” will open at The Frick on February 21st of next year and run through June 2nd: I can guarantee you that you will read my review of it somewhere.

2 thoughts on “Meeting Moroni: Italian Renaissance Genius To Get His Due At Last

  1. I must say, all of Moroni’s subjects appear sullen – I am not sure if they are unhappy or just suspicious as to how the painter will portray them!
    One day I hope to visit the Frick Museum 🙂


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