Following last year’s amazing Barocci exhibition at the National Gallery, this new show at the Royal Academy seems to follow a trend of rediscovering forgotten great painters of the past. The 16th-century Italian portraitist Giovanni Battista Moroni is just wonderful. Having spent most of his 30-year career in the northern town of Bergamo, he painted the people around him, from the doctors, clerics and craftsmen to the politicians, poets and aristocrats as if they were royalty. His psychological insights are strikingly acute, his portraits of men, women and children alive with human presence. A hundred books could not give us a better sense of the characters of this little world – beyond which Moroni (and most of his paintings) never travelled, which may be one reason he has never received his due praise.


Moroni’s most famous painting, The Tailor (1570) looks exactly like my ex Krishna who wasn’t a tailor but would have killed to be one. Dressed to kill, the tailor shows us what he usually does precisely when he is not dressed like that. In fact, he is wearing what he is making. He is a tailor and a model or a mannequin, to use the mid XX century term. Having said this, this  portrait functions at many levels. On one hand, it is an advertisement of sorts. But this portrait is more than that. There is something regal in the pose that reminds of that Philip II painted a few years before by Anthonis Mor. His right eye cuts the pictorial space in two halves and the arms forms the triangle that derives from the eyed pyramid that we can find in today’s dollar bills.  He is not going too far in this direction for his head is slightly down. Is he telling his viewers that even a mere tailor can look like an aristocrat when wearing his clothes? Although The Observer’s Laura Cumming says that ‘this is who he is, what he does, where he works, how he reacts to others: an exemplary moment from the life held intact down the centuries’, there is something emblematic in this piece that speaks about something more transcendent than craft. The sitter seems to adopt a similar royal pose in his Gian Gerolamo Grumelli, c1560 which closely follows another Philip II’s portrait by Anthonis Mor.


The Royal Academy insists on linking Moroni’s art to that of Caravaggio and the main reason of this is that there is a direct encounter between the sitter and the viewer. That connection is definitely close and intense. There appears to be no psychological distance between the tailor, his painter and their viewer or in other words, the viewer finds himself or herself immersed into a psychological bubble.

The Duke of Albuquerque is a man on edge. Boxed into a corner of some cold stone palace, he is tensely flexed for any hostile action. One hand grasps the ledge behind him, thumb hovering on the hilt of his sword, the other holds tight to his purse. If you did not know it from the hint of hypertension in the flushed cheeks, or the defensive narrowing of the eyes, you might guess he was hot-tempered and defiant. And everything in Moroni’s fine and subtle brushwork – from the almost-sneer of the mouth to the dapper, head-in-air erectness of the figure – is borne out by the motto inscribed on the wall beside the duke. Me? I’m afraid of nothing, not even death.

Moroni was the son of a mason and he loves to position a figure beside a pillar, ivy-clad wall or classical ruin. The cockiest of heroes may have a backdrop of crumbling masonry: life surrounded by the ravages of time. In the full-length portrait called A Knight With His Jousting Helmet, the eponymous gallant leans languidly against a huge chunk of stone, armour strewn around his feet, as if to suggest that the battle is done and dusted. But weeds are sprouting around him and the masonry is streaked with brown damp.

The knight will soon become involved in a murder plot between two aristocratic families; in exile from Bergamo, he will die by falling down a well when drunk. There are stories behind Moroni’s portraits – beautifully conveyed at the Royal Academy – but there are narratives within them too.

The woman in scarlet silk holds a loving letter from her husband; the man in black holds his latest solemn essay. A monk, briefly appearing before Moroni, gives a faint half-smile, the measure of both his shyness and his daring.

There are books, manuscripts and epigrams everywhere; Moroni’s portraits are full of writers and readers. A woman leans urgently forward in her chair to address us: she is a poet. An old man in a beret and heavy jacket turns slowly from the leather-bound volume he has been reading to meet the viewer’s eye. His gaze is almost hypnotic, hooking you with a long and searching look. A man in a void, surrounded by nothing but the diaphanous shadow that seems to express his own stern charisma – Moroni’s portrait anticipates many artists to come, from Velázquez to Manet.

Like Caravaggio or Velazquez, he worked directly from life without any preliminary drawing – unusual at the time, and for which Titian himself commended Moroni – and that sense of encounter is inherent to each image. His precision of line reminds of Mor but the use of the colour is definitely linked to Titian and eventually to Velazquez. In fact, there is an homage to Titian in Gian Girolamo Albani, c1570. The sober restraint of this artist makes him one of the most elegant artists that I have ever seen and one that Velazquez would have taken very seriously. J A T