Giovanni Battista Moroni: Renaissance Portraitist
The Kimbell Art Museum organized a series of small, focused exhibitions on artists or themes that have not previously been treated in depth in the United States. The first of these exhibitions was devoted to the 16th-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni (c. 1523–1579).
Giovanni Battista Moroni had been the subject of retrospectives in Italy, and was celebrated in the 400th anniversary exhibition of 1978 at the National Gallery, London (mostly drawn from London’s own extensive holdings), but there had been no equivalent representation of his achievement in this country.
In this focused exhibition, the Kimbell Art Museum brought together 10 of Moroni’s finest and most innovative works from throughout his career, ranging from his earliest portraits showing the influence of northern realism to his later works reflecting the climate of reform promulgated at the Council of Trent, where the Catholic Counter-Reformation was set in motion. The portraits in Giovanni Battista Moroni: Renaissance Portraitist were loaned from museums in the United States and Canada, a private collection in Great Britain, and from the collection of Count Moroni in Bergamo, Italy.
Francesco Maria Tassi, in his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects of Bergamo (1793), reported that whenever Venetian noblemen were appointed as provincial governors in Bergamo, Titian recommended that they have their portrait painted there by Moroni—if they desired a “true and natural likeness.” One of the most outstanding portrait painters of the 16th century, Moroni is perhaps the first painter in the Italian Renaissance to concentrate his activity primarily as a portraitist.
Born in the small town of Albino, northeast of Bergamo in the foothills of the Alps, Moroni was trained in the workshop of Alessandro Bonvicino, called Moretto (c. 1498–1554), in nearby Brescia. As a young man, Moroni was employed in Trent during the opening sessions of the Church Council; he painted the nephews of Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo, whose own portrait was painted by Titian and who played a prominent role as a mediator between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. The exhibition included Moroni’s impressive full-length Portrait of Gian Lodovico Madruzzo (c. 1551–52, The Art Institute of Chicago)—future cardinal and successor to his uncle as prince-bishop of Trent—a strikingly naturalistic work that arguably owes more to the example of German portraits of members of the Hapsburg court than to Italian models.
By the early 1550s, Moroni was primarily active in the region of Bergamo, painting portraits of the local aristocracy and professional classes, along with sacred commissions and devotional paintings such as Portrait of a Man before the Virgin and Child (c. 1557–60, National Gallery of Art, Washington). This image of intimate and devout religious experience—with the Virgin and Child appearing to the donor as in a vision—reflects the spirit of reform that Moroni would have heard deliberated in Trent.
Rather than working for the imperial court or seeking his fortune in Venice or Milan, Moroni established himself as the leading painter in Bergamo, an outpost of the Venetian Republic strategically located near Milan and the Germanic territories to the north. The cultivated circle of patrons that sat for Moroni included nobles with Spanish and imperial sympathies. Among his most celebrated masterpieces is the Portrait of Gian Gerolamo Grumelli, popularly known as The Cavaliere (Knight) in Pink (1560, Collezione Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo). Grumelli, who was named a Knight of the Golden Spur at age 10, declares his cultural allegiance with the display of a Spanish motto and a magnificent costume of silver-embroidered, coral-pink silk. Also included in the exhibition was the Portrait of Isotta Brembati (Collezione Palazzo Moroni), a Bergamasque noblewoman and poet who became Grumelli’s second wife in 1561. Moroni painted this portrait some years earlier, about 1552–53, employing the seated full-length format—an uncommon tribute for a woman, and particularly for a nonroyal subject, until it was taken up by Rubens and Van Dyck in the 17th century.
Other portraits featured in the exhibition indicated the range of Moroni’s sitters, which, as well as the nobility, included scholars and writers, jurists and clergymen, military men and civil servants. Datable soon after the portrait of Grumelli is the three-quarter-length Portrait of Mario Benvenuti (c. 1560–63, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota), a professed “Dux” or military leader under Charles V—possibly a nostalgic record of Benvenuti’s youthful exploits. Also from this period is Canon Bartolomeo Bonghi (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), former rector at the University of Pavia, who Moroni portrays with characteristic vividness and immediacy.
Shortly after these commanding portraits were painted, Moroni returned to his native Albino for reasons that are not entirely clear but that doubtless involved changes in the political fortunes of his patrons. There he painted altarpieces for country parishes and portraits of members of the local aristocracy as well as more modest patrons—all depicted with a penetrating and candid eye and with increasingly muted colors and shadowy backgrounds. Although many of Moroni’s sitters have not been identified, their personalities are vividly conveyed by the artist’s rendering of nuances of facial expression and physical appearance.
Several portraits from Moroni’s late period were on view, including one of Moroni’s most famous works, Portrait of a Cleric (c. 1570, National Gallery of Art, Washington), which was long known as “Titian’s Schoolmaster.” Formerly assigned to the Venetian artist and only restored to Moroni in the mid-18th century, this canvas was sketched in 1622 by the great portraitist Anthony van Dyck in the Borghese collection in Rome. The masterful pose of the sitter, who vigorously turns toward the viewer as if he had been interrupted in the course of his reading, is a typically Moronian innovation. The exceptional realism of the hands and face and the subtle tonal effects that define the sitter in space have been seen as anticipating the work of Caravaggio and Velázquez. Also included from Moroni’s later period was the Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1570–75, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). Dressed in the sober black costume fashionable during these years, the thoughts of this unidentified man of letters seem to be directed inward, and in relation to his books, rather than toward the spectator. The portrait, painted with fine tonal modulation, is representative of the austerity and increased spiritual outlook expressed in Moroni’s late works.
The Kimbell Art Museum was the only venue for this exhibition. A fully illustrated catalogue, with entries by Peter Humfrey and essays by Humfrey, Mina Gregori, Creighton Gilbert, Jane Bridgeman, and Nancy Edwards, was published by the Kimbell Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition.
Caption: Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Man before the Virgin and Child (detail), c. 1557–60, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Samule H. Kress Collection