The Pure Portraitist

Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture

an exhibition at the Frick Collection, New York City, February 21–June 2, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition by Aimee Ng, Simone Facchinetti, and Arturo Galansino
Frick Collection/Scala, 244 pp., $65.00 (paper)
The Tailor by Giovanni Battista Moroni
National Gallery, London
Giovanni Battista Moroni: The Tailor, 39 1/8 x 30 1/4 inches, circa 1570

The Frick has chosen a somewhat wrongheaded way of presenting the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni. The exhibition’s subtitle is “The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture,” which can be taken in two ways. The irrefutable meaning is that Moroni significantly added to the body of portraits that we have from the Renaissance. The second, and debatable, meaning of “riches” is that the artist’s pictures give a tour of the era’s taste for finery. The curators probably believe that Moroni, whose work is being given its long-overdue first museum show in New York, illustrates both meanings of the word.

Material sumptuousness greets us right from the cover of the show’s catalog. It presents Moroni’s portrait of Isotta Brembati, a seated, amply built blonde who has a guarded look and who gives us plenty of finery to take in. She wears an impressive dark-green-and-gold brocaded gown and holds a white-and-pink fan, which might be made out of fur and has a gold handle. She has jewelry on her wrists, ears, neck, and hair, and after a second or two one discovers a bolt of fur around her neck. It is that of a marten, a weasel-like creature whose head in this adornment is made out of gold and precious stones. Should you miss this accessory and happen to turn over the catalog, you will find, along with a period quote about Moroni, a startling close-up photo of such a marten’s head. Composed of gold, rubies, garnets, and pearls, with teeth made of white enamel and special attention accorded the animal’s ears and eyebrows, this piece of jewelry demands a look.

The marten’s head dates from the same period as the painting and is in the exhibition. But the museum has not stopped with this ornament. If a sitter wears a rapier, such a rapier is in the gallery. If one sitter has shears in his hand and another holds an antique marble sculpture, these objects (though not the very ones in the paintings) are in the show. There are displays of a book of devotions, a fan handle like the one Isotta holds, woodcuts of the time illustrating the patterns on a sitter’s collar, and so on. Bizarrely, each of these items gets its own entry in the catalog. This dilutes the paintings: they become simply additional documents of a bygone time.

But the real problem with emphasizing the objects in Moroni’s pictures is that it runs counter to why we are drawn to the painter in the first place. Yes, he recorded the clothes of his sitters with great care, and the clothes of the time can be dazzling. He was a meticulous observer. Yet Moroni stands out in the Italian art of the 1500s not only because…

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