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: A Portrait of Moroni


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Society has recently purchased from the income of the Dunwoody Fund an extremely fine Renaissance painting, a masterpiece of portraiture by Giovanni Battista Moroni (ca. 1529-1578), a distinguished artist of the northern Italian school. The painting represents an ecclesiastic, a thoughtful appearing man somewhat advanced in years, whose somber garments accord with the contemplative, dignified spirit that is so admirably expressed in this beautiful portrait. The figure is life-size, but is only represented to the waist. The subject's right hand, holding open the pages of a book, rests on a parapet of white marble which extends across the lower part of the picture. Over his black robe he wears a loose cape of black watered silk. His barretto, or four-peaked cap, is also black. The flesh color is characteristic of Moroni, silvery in the light, shading to a rather ruddy golden tone. The lips, half concealed by the thin beard, are deep red in color and lend vivacity to the expression. The warm tones of the flesh painting are echoed by the gilded edges of the book lying on the parapet. The background is a cool, greenish gray. Valuable accents in this extremely simple but effective harmony of gray, black and gold, are afforded by the white pages of the book and by the edge of white around the throat. The painting is on canvas and measures 23 3/4 in. by 28 1/2 in. It was formerly in the Abdy collection in London.In the XV century, or the period of the Early Renaissance, portraiture was distinguished by its objective realism. The artist, as a rule, confined himself to the representation of the head, or at least concentrated his attention upon that. He strove, first of all, for likeness. The sitter was represented in a familiar aspect and with simple accessories. In the succeeding century, which is called the period of the High Renaissance, a marked change in the social and political life of Italy had its effect upon the art of portraiture. This was the age of The Courtier of Castiglione, when elegance and courtly distinction represented the ideals of society. In the portraits of this time, truth of the likeness may or may not exist, depending upon the skill of the individual painter; but there is in almost all late Renaissance portraits an air of stately dignity that makes a portrait of this period unmistakable. Great attention was paid to the posture of the figure, which more frequently than in the earlier period was shown in full length. Attitudes were chosen either to suggest the personality of the subject, or, should that be out of keeping with the spirit of the times, to endow the sitter with an appropriate air of dignity. This desire for the grand sometimes led to the production of the grandiose, and many XVI-century portraits are pompous rather than stately. Like every other golden age, the XVI century foreshadowed the coming decline. Nevertheless, it is to this age that we owe the greatest number of masterpieces of portraiture of the Renaissance, for at their best the great painters of this time came nearest to realizing the Hellenistic ideals of their generation, since in their work we note those qualities of "measure, distinction, clearness" which in Schiller's definition constitute the essential features of Hellenism.As a portraitist, Moroni is uneven. He spent the greater part of his life in the little city of Bergamo. He lacked the beneficial competition that is possible in larger centers, and at times his work is commonplace. At his best, however, he ranks among the great portrait painters of Italy. It is said that Titian thought so highly of him that he used to send clients from Bergamo who came to him for portraits back to their own country to be painted by their own man. Giovanni Battista Moroni was born at Bondio in the Bergamese territory about 1520. He died in 1578 at Brescia. As a young man he entered the studio of Alessandro Bonvicino, called Il Moretto. In portrait painting, Moroni rivaled his master, although he was inferior to him in subject pictures; he was more gifted with perception than imagination. Like many other North Italian painters, Moroni felt the influence of Lorenzo Lotto. He achieved, however, a distinctly personal style, and his numerous portraits are easily recognizable. The celebrated Portrait of a Tailor in the National Gallery in London is undoubtedly his best known work. It is characteristic not only of Moroni, but also of his time, that he has given to this humble craftsman the bearing and distinction of a great nobleman, yet without insincerity or travesty.The Portrait of an Ecclesiastic acquired by the Institute may be counted among Moroni's most successful portraits. The rare beauty of line, the exquisite simplicity of the composition, the quiet harmony of the colors-black, gray and gold bathed in silvery light, the magnificent modeling of the head and hand, demonstrate the artist's extraordinary skill. But even more noteworthy is the success with which the artist has conveyed truthfully and forcefully the personality of the sitter.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Portrait of an Ecclesiastic, by Giovanni Battista Moroni
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Source: Joseph Breck, "A Portrait by Moroni," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 5, no. 5 (May, 1916): 34-35.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009