A cult favorite

Moroni, a little known Italian Renaissance painter, is having a big moment at The Frick Collection

  • “Portrait of a Young Woman” (ca. 1575) shows Moroni’s genius for “capturing that person exactly as she was,” said the Frick’s associate curator Aimee Ng. Private collection.  Photo: Michael Bodycomb

  • “The Tailor” (ca. 1570), seen here in the East Gallery with a pair of 16th century shears, is Moroni’s most famous painting. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

if you go

WHAT: “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture”

WHERE: The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street

WHEN: Through June 2, 2019.

There’s a Lady in Red and a Man in Pink in the Oval Room at the Frick, part of an opulent new show of 23 portraits by Albino-born Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24-1579/80), the first major exhibit of this regional artist’s oeuvre in North America.

Moroni is better known in his native Italy and in England, which possesses the largest number of Moronis outside the painter’s homeland and hosted a comprehensive show at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2014.

As Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick, noted at a recent preview: “He’s a little bit of a cult favorite. I think people who love Old Master pictures have known about Moroni.”

A contemporary of Titian and Bronzino, this painter worked mainly outside the major artistic hubs — Venice, Florence and Rome — confining himself for the most part to Albino and nearby Bergamo, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. He kept it local.

That may be why Giorgio Vasari didn’t include Moroni in his famous compendium of artist biographies, “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” (1550; 1568). Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) also slighted him, writing him off as a “mere portrait painter,” who “gives us sitters no doubt as they looked.” There was not enough “art” in his art, apparently.

But a reputation rehab has been underway for decades, with one scholar lauding the painter’s diligent likenesses, claiming they anticipated the realism of Caravaggio. Still, as the press release for the show states, “Moroni’s characterization as an artist who faithfully recorded the world around him — whether understood as a positive quality or a weakness — has obscured his creativity and innovation as a portraitist.”

At the Frick, Moroni is presented as an artist more artful and interesting than he’s been given credit for. Take the full-length picture of “Isotta Brembati” (ca. 1555-1556) in the Oval Room. A poet from an aristocratic family, Brembati wears a gown patterned with a motif that grows larger and larger as it travels down the length of the garment, most likely an embellishment rather than something real.

“It seems as if he had a dress, and he’s fictionalized part of it to create a more impressive visual effect,” co-curator Aimee Ng said. “We don’t really notice it, because it’s painted so naturalistically.”

More than anything else, Isotta was a woman who knew how to accessorize — and show her money. She holds a gold-or-gilt-bronze-handled fan with feathers, usually mistaken for a purse, and has a fur wrap, with a jeweled marten’s head, hanging around her neck.

We wouldn’t necessarily notice the fur if an actual pelt was not on display in a case nearby, along with other luxe accessories that resemble the items in the painting.

The period swag is a window into Moroni’s “material world,” in Ng’s words, what he really saw when he painted. As Wardropper put it, the objects sprinkled throughout the Oval Room and the East Gallery “underscore the theme of the riches of Renaissance portraiture.”

The marten’s head (ca. 1550-1559), in gold with rubies and pearls, is one of the most eye-catching items on view. “It’s so great that it has survived from the Renaissance,” Ng said of the loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which is shown with a modern pelt. “If you had one, you had a lot of wealth, and people knew it.”

Moroni admired beauty, but he did not make his subjects conform to Renaissance ideals of beauty. In “Portrait of a Young Woman” (ca. 1575), he demonstrates his genius for “capturing that person exactly as she was ... There’s nothing generic about that expression. I would not want to get on the bad side of this woman,” said Ng.

The artist painted the material world at the same time that he painted the spiritual world. He is credited with inventing a new genre, “sacred portraits,” a mix of contemporary donor portraits and devotional imagery. Three such paintings survive, all displayed here.

In these, the contemporary figures practice a type of meditative prayer popularized by books such as St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” (1548), a rare copy of which is part of the exhibit. As Ng explained: “Just as you have to work out your body, through running or walking, you work out your prayer as well. It’s a four-week program,” involving imagining the sight, sound, smell, touch and taste of heavenly beings. Amen.

Moroni, it seems, could move seamlessly from the sacred to the mundane, from patricians to tradesmen. Be sure to see his most famous painting, “The Tailor” (ca. 1570), in the East Gallery. The curator called it “the gateway drug to Moroni” for its genre-bending depiction of a prosperous tailor on the verge of cutting a piece of cloth — it’s a cross between a portrait and a genre painting.

A pair of shears, pictured in the foreground, is the gateway to the tailor’s material world. A vitrine showcases the real thing from the 16th century. Said Ng: “Only by having them here [can you] imagine your hand in there, the weight of that ... I kind of understood why he’s resting them on the table. They are so heavy.”

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