The Moment of Moroni

Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Giovanni Battista Moroni: Portrait of a Twenty-nine-year-old Man, 22 3/8 x 17 1/2 inches, 1567 (left); Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family, 15 3/4 x 12 5/8 inches, circa 1570 (right)

The catalog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo” has on its cover, amusingly, a work by Giovanni Battista Moroni. Perhaps the designer of the appealingly small-sized catalog chose the Moroni, a 1567 portrait of a young man with a background of a neutral color, because, more than other pictures in the show, it provided a good space to set forth the lengthy title. But the cover could be saying, editorially, that while Bellini, Titian, and Lotto are the presumed attractions, it is Moroni’s image of a tense young man, with closely cropped hair and beard, that genuinely grips our attention.

This, anyway, is what happens at the exhibition, a presentation of a dozen or so fairly small-size paintings from one of Italy’s premier museums. Covering works made in Venice and elsewhere in northern Italy between roughly 1450 and 1570, the show gives us the opportunity of seeing choice and unusual pictures by Giovanni Bellini and Titian, probably the most acclaimed figures of the Renaissance in Venice, and by some of their lesser-known contemporaries. But it is Moroni’s portrait of the intent young man, and the artist’s hardly less phenomenal portrait of a little girl—paintings that, in their emotional directness, seem as if they could have been done the other day—that make the show momentous. Once they are encountered, all the other pictures somehow go on hold.

Viewers with even a working familiarity with the history of Western art can be forgiven for drawing a blank with the name Moroni. A native of the region around Bergamo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps—a region that was then a part of the Venetian Republic—he was active in the middle years of the 1500s, and died, probably in his fifties, in 1578. He made religious pictures, usually for the local valley churches, but he specialized in portraits. He did so to a degree that was unusual, and earned him Bernard Berenson’s sneering 1907 remark (and the quotation most associated with the artist) that he was “the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced.” Berenson went on witheringly, and his verdict was burnished by a later eminent art historian, John Pope-Hennessy, who, in a 1966 book on Renaissance portraiture, noted that while Moroni’s realistic pictures give an unsurpassed sense of the sitter’s appearance, this immediacy comes at “the expense of shallowness.”

It makes perfect sense, and it attests to the artist’s power, that connoisseurs such as Berenson and Pope-Hennessy seemed almost affronted by Moroni, because his portraits have a bluntness that has few precedents in Italian painting. Moroni…

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