They are, in short, alive. He captures a sense of his subjects with an intense subtlety. Moroni paid for his meals by painting local high society and creating some striking religious work both for private devotion and public display. His portraits are remarkable.
The Royal Academy has brought together Moroni’s work and presents the pieces almost chronologically with the real gems saved for the last room where Moroni took all he learned and crafted his most vivid portraits. His backgrounds and props are basic, so as to ensure a focus on the figure and in particular the face and expression. At the start of the exhibition there are several works by Moroni’s teacher Moretto for comparison and you can see there is a clear influence of the Italian Lombard School where the focus was on keeping a simple realness to the work; There is a favour towards a true representation of reality rather than transforming something into an ideal. A limitation which also fed into Moroni’s work was that he did not have the luxury of time or resources to practice before he made his portraits. As a result they have a certain directness. He had to work fast, in swift strokes and working from real life.
This is most clearly seen in his famous work, The Tailor 1570 which really is very special. The Tailor cocks his head towards us – he is busy but he stops for us. He knows us well and is inviting us to take a look at him at work. Portrait of a Doctor (The Magistrate) 1560 is similarly intimate; the sitter really does look like he has been happily disturbed from reading his letter. There is a sense of recognition, we are friendly, he knows us and there is a real warmth.
In these works it feels like the subject of the painting has just caught us watching them. They look directly at us, for a moment, locking eyes with us. Their heads slightly towards us as if they have just looked up from whatever they were doing. The effect of spontaneity and a feeling of real movement has been caught in every piece. In the Portrait of the Lady in Black (Medea Rossi) 1572-73 this feeling of sudden awareness goes even further; the sitter is holding a book and has her finger in it to hold her page like she could go back to reading at any second.
As if they were photographs of a quick moment in the subject’s life, a quick snap before they go back to living it, Moroni carefully gives us an intimate sense of these people engrossed in the day to day.
With the modern world of social media and relentless tagging of photographs we are used to seeing moments depicted like this because they are exactly that, whereas in 1500s Italy it would have been strange to look at these informally posed paintings.
But the magical portraits are the ones in which Moroni has infused some sense of his attitude towards his sitters into their paintings in the form of a vague narrative. The Portrait of a Gentleman and his Two Daughters (The Widower) 1572-75 has a different kind of intimacy. The way the gentleman looks at us and holds his daughters protectively suggests he is willing us not to look, the title giving the impression that the letter he has just finished reading did not have good news and we are imposing on a private moment.
The Italian Renaissance produced some of the greatest artists of our time, so much so that a brilliant Master painter like Moroni was left largely neglected in comparison to some of his more famous peers. This was partly due to the fact that he wasn’t in the cultural centre of Florence, charming the Medici family and gaining important commissions. Instead he worked largely from Bergamo, a smaller more provincial town and just outside it when things got more difficult politically. Ironically, it is this sidelining which probably helped him to develop his most interesting work. His anonymity also made him more attractive to the British Victorians holidaying in Italy who found him in the nineteenth century and brought him back from the brink of obscurity. The fact that he had been lost made him fashionable.
Although people will visit this exhibition for the stunning and subtle portraits, there is great enjoyment to be had from the religious paintings in the earlier part of the exhibition. His teacher, Moretti’s work Devout in Contemplation of King David 1535-1540 is a gorgeous depiction of a powerful King David paused in the playing of his famously beautiful music in front of a priest, to literally point at the light.
Some of these religious paintings are for want of a better word, trippy in their imagery. In St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises (a popular religious book at the time) he recommends that the worshipper pray by kneeling down and imagining key moments from the bible or Christ’s life as a form of meditation. Apparently this could sometimes lead to sublime religious visions. Some of the paintings here, depict that act and the visions it conjured. A Gentleman in Adoration Before the Baptism of Christ 1555-1560, at first glance looks strangely as if the gentleman in prayer is looking at a painting. However we soon realise that we are looking at a young man who has been meditating to the point that the wall in front of him has broken away, showing him the scene he was imagining, framed by the wall. His imagination is manifested in an all too real vision.
Gentleman in Contemplation of Madonna and Child 1555 goes even further, the wall is gone and the devotee is literally standing in front of Mary and Jesus, praying directly to them as they knowingly look out at us. It is emphasized as a vision by the gentleman’s clothes in comparison to the outfits of the figures who are also smaller in size.
Yet another ‘psychedelic’ piece by Lorenzo Lotto called The Trinity 1519-1521 depicts Jesus flanked by clouds and cherubs standing on a rainbow in the sky, inviting us to view his wounds while a shadowy holy ghost behind him is embodied by a dove flying directly towards us. This painting sits contrasted by Moroni’s own The Trinity 1552-1553 which is of a more realistic style with a more relaxed Jesus literally holding the world in his wounded hands but still flanked by clouds and cherubs, behind him a much more human holy ghost.
Moroni is often wrongly forgotten and this exhibition is a great testament to and reminder of his talent for capturing the inner lives of the every-day people around him as they come to life in their expressions, looking out to us like ghostly reminders of how things were hundreds of years ago.