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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Unknown Pleasures

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One of the delights of regularly attending art exhibitions – as well as realising how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful facilities on my doorstep – is to discover an artist I was previously unfamiliar with, a sense of pleasure heightened after battling to understand post War German artists. One such delight is to the wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Italian renaissance painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni. This is the first major exhibition of his work outside of Italy. Interestingly, when I attended the exhibition in the Sackler Wing the only other attendees were a party of Italian tourists – a case of when in London do as the Romans do.

Moroni (early 1520s – 1579) was born in Albino, near Milan, a part of what is now Italy but then ruled by the Spanish. He painted mainly in Bergamo which was close to Venice and in his prime he was a contemporary of Veronese and Titian. His work, at least judging by the 40 or so works which comprise this exhibition, falls into two camps – paintings on religious themes, particularly for altar pieces, and portraits of the great and good (or not so great and good, depending on your point of view).

Let’s get the religious stuff out of the way first. I am not a great fan of this genre and certainly in comparison with Veronese Moroni is second-rate. You get the sense that this is his pot-boiler work, undertaken to earn a few ducats.

Where Moroni’s genius shines out is in his portraiture. He adopts the classic full-length or three-quarter length pose but what shines out is his naturalism, use of colour and light, use of dark and shade and his understanding of the personality of his subject. I was transfixed by these wonderful pictures, full of admiration for the way that Moroni had represented the silks and brocades of the rich clothing worn by his subjects. That said, he doesn’t seem to have been an artist keen to confront his subjects. Don’t look for a Lucian Freud warts-and-all style.

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What was interesting was the subtle change of approach in his later years. Moroni, perhaps because he had run out of subjects in the rather small circle that was Bergamese nobility, started to paint more middle-class subjects such as a tailor (on loan from the National Gallery and probably his most famous painting), a magistrate and a canon. For me, his best work belongs to that period, the magnificent portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Albani who is depicted sitting in an armchair, scowling and eyes somewhat averted as if he was a somewhat reluctant sitter. The great bump on his forehead not only reflects a hard life – Albani had spent some time in exile – but an artist who is confident enough to escape the stifling confines of having to please his patrons.

This exhibition was a revelation and a joy to behold. I thoroughly recommend you seeing it, if you can, before it closes on January 25th.

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