For the press preview for Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture, I arrived at the Frick critically prepared. Recently I’d reread the shade thrown over a century ago by Bernard Berenson, the dean of Renaissance scholars. “Moroni,” he wrote in 1907, “the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced.” Nearly a decade later Berenson had hardly softened, describing “that over-anecdotic characterization which makes the bulk of his work as uninteresting as the average good portrait painted to-day.” He even called him “palsied,” which proves that Berenson could be gratuitously caustic when offended by an artist’s deficiencies. He was, however, touching on a criticism that has followed Moroni since his own time.
Giovanni Battista Moroni’s painting is generally a dry affair. In the Oval Room, Exhibits A and B are the portraits Isotta Brembati and Lucia Albani Avogadro, called La Dama in Rosso (The Lady in Red). The poses are identical, the spectacular finery dutifully represented. Whatever their differences in personality, both women appear to have given Moroni a dyspeptic side-eye. In an accompanying catalogue, Associate Curator Aimee Ng notes the proportional awkwardness of some of the figures: portrait painters often were expected to draw or paint the head from direct observation, then attach it to a body in the studio using a hired model or a clothed mannequin. The great ones performed this cut-and-paste seamlessly, but more than a few of Moroni’s portraits possess heads that are noticeably large for their bodies. There’s a stiffness to the figures that reminds me of Anthonis Mor, whom Moroni visited in Trent. Moroni spent most of his life in Albino and Brescia in northern Italy, where he apprenticed to Moretto da Brescia, who had himself been a student of Titian.
Ng makes at least two important claims on the artist’s behalf. The first is that he invented the genre of devotional portraiture, wherein the patron is shown in adoration of the Madonna and Christ; this flipped the tradition of situating patrons at the respectful periphery of religious scenes. Moroni may also have been the first artist in Italy to paint a full-length standing portrait of a woman, in the person of an apparently pregnant Pace Rivola Spini, currently in residence at the far wall of the East Gallery. It, as well as the pendant portrait of her husband, Bernardo Spini, offers psychological and pictorial nuances far above the level of a “mere portrait painter.” In the latter canvas, the manipulation of the contours of Bernardo’s black drapery against gray walls prefigures Velázquez’s standing figures of the following century. There are masterful passages throughout the Frick show, though rarely do they fill a whole canvas. A notable exception is Moroni’s best known painting, The Tailor. Like the Spini portraits, it is a late work, and it, too, benefits from atmospheric softening, as well as distillation of supplementary stuffs—a pair of shears and a swatch of black fabric are all that’s needed to identify the subject. An even more intimate air imbues the Bust Portrait of a Young Man with an Inscription, a small work whose beauty is either amplified or mitigated by the oddly starched set of head and shoulders. Again, the head appears large for the body, and in the 1860s a restorer decided to remedy the situation by broadening the shoulders; the alteration was reversed in 1975.
One is unlikely to confuse their handiwork now—Moretto’s paintings are livelier—but prior to the nineteenth century, a number of Moroni’s more accomplished portraits were attributed to his teacher. Of work currently assigned to Moroni, perhaps the least secure attribution is that of an unusually fine work, the Woman with a Fan in the Rijksmuseum (not in show). Until 1979 it was attributed to other masters, and in the catalogue, Ng acknowledges that it’s difficult to establish authorship with certainty. The bottom line is that the painting may be too good to have been done by Moroni. In his favor is the fact that he was capable of moments of inspired subtlety, as in The Tailor or Titian’s Schoolmaster (not in show).
Perhaps the most physically impressive portrait in the Frick show is Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago (Moroni’s portrait of his brother, Gian Federico, at the National Gallery, features greater elegance in gesture and disposition of drapery). It was my good fortune to happen upon Harvey Dinnerstein at the preview, and for a short while we stood and talked in the center of the East Gallery while I kept watch on the Madruzzo portrait. Here our enthusiasm intersected, and my reservations were checked by Harvey’s excitement. He noted the nearly flat abstraction of Madruzzo’s ebony robe, which I found all the more intriguing for being set against a floor tiled in a geometric pattern of white, green and pink. Presently, the Associate Curator led a few dozen journalists into the gallery on a tour. I listened for several minutes before revisiting the vacated Oval Room. There, one can take in the plumed and rather insufferable looking Faustino Avogadro, who is assumed to have been the husband of The Lady in Red. The painting’s best passages are not the dandified upper body or the tromp l’oeil cracked wall, but the black stockinged legs. Avogadro’s legs, alas, failed him a few years later, when he drunkenly fell down a well and broke his neck.
A persistent assessment of Moroni’s portraits is that they’re overly naturalistic; the show’s rebuttal, which is correct, is that he wasn’t a copyist. That Moroni was capable of invention is evident. The real issue, and the shortcoming of the more pedestrian works, is absence of spirit or wit. It effects the technique and shows in the sitter’s expressions. If he were a musician, we might say that Moroni had a good ear for tone but not much sense of rhythm.
Still, the exhibition is not to be missed, for it presents the phenomenon of a temperamentally limited artist who nonetheless played a seminal role in his genre. It’s the first major retrospective of Moroni in this country, and probably the last for a long time. It’s also a credit to the Frick, which, like the Met and the Morgan, continues to reevaluate lesser known old masters. In a city where museum goers are most fascinated by what’s new, such shows practically constitute acts of institutional courage.
Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture continues at the Frick Collection through June 2, 2019.