Giovanni Battista Moroni <br/>The Tailor, c. 1570 <br/>Oil on canvas, 99.5 x 77 cm <br/>The National Gallery, London <br/>Photo c. The National Gallery, London <br/>
‘The Tailor’ (c1570) and ‘Gentleman in Contemplation Before the Madonna and Child’ (c1555)

“Grandcourt [ . . . ] was lounging [ . . . ] in an easy chair near the hearth [ . . . ] you might have imagined him a portrait by Moroni, who would have rendered wonderfully the impenetrable gaze and air of distinction.” Written by George Eliot in her 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, these words betray the fame the Lombard painter enjoyed in England at that time thanks to the presence of a clutch of his works in the National Gallery.

Why did he sink back into the shadows? His absence in The Lives of the Painters by Vasari, who never visited Bergamo, where Moroni spent much of his life, always counted against him. Bernard Berenson wrote him off as the only “mere portrait painter Italy has ever produced”. A show at the Royal Academy in 1930 juxtaposed him with other late-Renaissance Italian painters and found him wanting.

Now the same institution wants to redress the balance. This exhibition, which brings together more than 40 of Moroni’s paintings, calls on us to recognise him as “one of the greatest painters of the 16th century”.

This is a big ask given that his peers included Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto and Bronzino. For much of the show it is impossible to look at his paintings without those titans looming up in comparison. Yet in the last years of his life, he discovers an entirely original voice.

Moroni’s fate was dictated by geography as much as by talent. Born in Albino, a small town outside Milan, in 1521, his career unfolded in a territory gripped by Counter-Reformation fervour. Venice cleaved to its republican liberty even as it paid lip-service to Rome, thereby clearing a space for the sensuality of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. In Florence the dying embers of humanism permitted the passion for all things opulent by painters such as Bronzino. But Milan was ruled by Spain, hotbed of the Inquisition. Furthermore, its archbishop, Carlo Borromeo, was a zealous reformist.

The shift in mood unfolds through this show’s opening rooms. A clutch of paintings by Moroni’s teacher, a Brescian master known as Il Moretto, demonstrate a subtlety never available to his student. Most glorious is “Portrait of an Ecclesiastic” (1540-45), which shows a priest lost in contemplation in his study. Il Moretto has intensified the mystery by reducing the room to a cranny of pearly light where time bleeds away through an hourglass, and a patch of Persian cloth shimmers under a holy text like an exotic interloper from a foreign world.

Such visual enigmas, which look back to the vision of Lorenzo Lotto, would vanish as the Counter-Reformation gathered pace. Working out of a studio in Trent, home to the council that was cooking up a strategy to defend Catholicism from the Lutheran threat, Il Moretto and Moroni were in the eye of the storm.

Moroni adapted to the zeitgeist too well. His religious paintings here are peopled by soulless saints and unnatural compositions. In trying too hard to obey Reformist doctrine, Moroni tipped into a didacticism that did no favours either to his reputation or that of the Almighty.

When freed from spiritual considerations, however, he painted from the heart. Under Venetian rule, Bergamo was a wealthy city with a cultivated aristocracy who were eager for portraits. Early examples show the painter grappling for balance between his own astute grasp of psychology and the requirement to maintain a respectful distance. Captured full-length, in their sumptuous, gilt-embroidered finery, his high-born patrons are framed by imposing classical architecture but their high-coloured faces and their nervous, sideways glances betray the anxieties that came with status in the Renaissance world.

Unlike Titian, for example, Moroni was an artist who painted from life. In Renaissance Europe, this was controversial. “The art of portraying from nature is so popularised that almost all its dignity is lost,” complained Pietro Aretino, the humanist writer and friend of Titian.

The doges, popes and emperors who commissioned Titian would not have submitted to long hours in front of a humble painter, nor welcomed a likeness that failed to hide their imperfections. But in Bergamo, a clientele of bourgeoisie and mid-level clergy were happy to sit for smaller, more affordable, bust-length portraits. The format, allied to the subject’s less grandiose expectations, gave Moroni the chance for forensic character examinations. His study of Giovanni Crisostomo Zanchi (1559), a Lateran Canon and talented linguist and poet, is as immediate as a photograph. In three-quarter profile, Zanchi peers at us suspiciously from under hooded eyes. The splash of ruddy colour across his cheek and nose suggests his puritan demeanour hides an intemperate streak. Indeed, it turns out he was imprisoned for suspected Lutheranism.

By the early 1560s a feud between two leading families, both of whom had been Moroni’s patrons, saw many of his clients forced into exile. As his commissions dried up, Moroni returned to his native town of Albino. He seemed to have viewed his retreat to this backwater as a licence to experiment. His last portraits are blessed with a humanity to rival any modern master. Unforgettable is “Portrait of an Elderly Man Seated with a Book” (c1575-79). Weary but alert, the man’s time-grooved face surges out of his voluminous black silk coat like an eagle about to pounce. Splashes of light, which yoke together his ring, silvery beard, rabbit-fur collar and the flame-red tassel on the back of his chair, hint at banked fires of frustration within. It’s hard to think of a more perceptive study of old age.

The masterpiece is “Portrait of a Tailor” (c1570). One of the acquisitions made by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, the National Gallery’s first director, it is a rare and telling image of a tradesman in an era when portraits were a luxury reserved for the rich. Moroni goes all out for his subject’s soul. From his tough, defensive expression to the pride with which he holds his scissors and length of cloth, and his handsome ruffled jacket and silk-lined pantaloons, this young artisan is challenging us to mock him for having the arrogance to desire his likeness for posterity.

No wonder that stuffy patrician, Aretino, reeled in horror. “To your disgrace, oh century, you allow even tailors and butchers to appear in painting, just as they are,” he thundered. Fortunately Caravaggio didn’t listen. Born in Lombardy about 50 years later than Moroni, the 17th-century master must have been inspired by his predecessor as he pursued his radical vision of painting sacred figures as if they were humble, everyday folk. Forget Protestantism. The real revolution in the 16th century was the rise of the individual. Suddenly a tailor’s soul counted for as much as a duke’s. Modernity was around the corner and Moroni, not Titian or Tintoretto, led the way.

Until January 25, royalacademy.org.uk

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