Charles Hope reviews Giovanni Battista Moroni on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, through January 25, 2015.
Hope begins by noting: "The assessment of Giovanni Battista Moroni written in 1648 by Carlo Ridolfi, his first biographer, has never been seriously challenged. Ridolfi says that Moroni, a pupil of Alessandro Moretto of Brescia, had a natural gift for portraiture, and it was through his portraits rather than his religious paintings that his reputation had survived. He adds that portraits do not belong in the first rank of painting, since they do not give the artist full scope to demonstrate his talent, because he is obliged to paint what he sees; but when they are good likenesses and skilfully painted they can only be praised. Ridolfi’s belief that portraiture was inferior to narrative or religious painting was widely shared. Portraiture, in fact, constituted a rather small part of the output of most 16th-century artists, whether in Italy or elsewhere, and the reputation of only a handful of painters was based primarily on their skill as portraitists, the most obvious examples being Holbein and Antonis Mor. In Italy the artist who most conspicuously specialised in portraiture was Moroni." Hope concludes: "Without flattering or patronising his sitters, [Moroni's] portraits provide a picture of Italian society unmatched in the work of any other artist of his time."