Introduction

Giovanni Battista Moroni (b. 1520–24; d. 1579/80) is renowned for spectacular portraits that seem to capture his sitters exactly as they appeared before him. Exhibited in the galleries are some of his most famous works, paintings that attest to his mastery of the genre and his superb naturalism in depicting his sitters, their clothing, and their attributes. What shaped the pictorial imagination of this artist known for his naturalism? This question inspired the juxtaposition of the portraits with a selection of rare sixteenth-century objects (and one antique sculpture) that evoke the material and visual world of the artist and his sitters. Together they highlight the artistic challenges and opportunities for invention Moroni encountered as he recorded, embellished, and transformed his world in paint.

Since antiquity, critics have, at times, derided artists seen to imitate their subjects too closely, forgoing selection, editing, and adherence to ideals of beauty. Indeed, Moroni’s naturalism has, sometimes, been criticized. In the early twentieth century, Bernard Berenson dismissed Moroni as an uninventive portraitist who “gives us sitters no doubt as they looked.” Later, the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi restored Moroni’s reputation, celebrating his “documents” of society and placing the artist at the head of a tradition of Lombard naturalism that anticipated Caravaggio. Nevertheless, Moroni’s characterization as an artist who faithfully recorded the world around him — whether understood as a positive quality or weakness — has tended to obscure his innovations as a portraitist.

Moroni is believed to have spent his entire career in the area around Bergamo in northern Italy. His clients included local nobility and aristocracy, as well as members of literary, mercantile, and clerical circles. Nearly one hundred twenty-five of his portraits survive, far more than the extant work of his more famous contemporaries, like Titian and Bronzino. Included are a number of somewhat formulaic portraits that attest to local market demands. These circumstances may have prevented him from achieving widespread fame during his lifetime. Significantly, Giorgio Vasari did not include Moroni in his seminal Lives of the Artists. But it may also be that Moroni’s regional career — away from the hierarchies, regulations, and expectations of artistic centers like Venice and Florence—allowed him relative freedom to experiment and to approach portraiture in new ways. This reconsideration of Moroni demands close looking at his best-known portraits, paintings in which the artist’s imagination and creative force belie the remarkable illusion of reality. 

Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture challenges the notion of Moroni as “documentarian.” He enhanced the effect of immediacy of his sitters with close crops, dramatic lighting, nuanced facial expressions, and dynamic poses. He experimented with genre and format, inventing the so-called sacred portrait and creating the earliest known independent full-length portrait of a standing woman of the Italian Renaissance. His famous Tailor anticipates the narrative portraiture for which Rembrandt would be celebrated in the Dutch Golden Age. The textile, jewelry, arms and armor, and other items presented in the galleries underscore the various roles that objects play in his portraits and the distances between Moroni’s painterly inventions and the material reality they purportedly record.