PORTRAITS OF (TROUBLED) FAMILIES IN AN INTERIOR

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Giovanni Battista Moroni became the first modern painter thanks to a bloody family feud

 

Never paint a family portrait if you want to live a quiet life and avoid being messed up. Giovanni Battista Moroni, an Italian painter of the 16th century, acquired a certain fame among well-off families from Bergamo, his birthplace, but eventually found himself in the middle of a real blood feud and had to pay the consequences. We learn more about this tragic character by speaking to Arturo Galansino, curator of the Moroni exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Who was Giovanni Battista Moroni“He was the painter of the Bergamo aristocracy and among them were two of the biggest and richest families, the Brembati and the Albani”, says Galansino. “The people of the middle classes liked to have their family members portrayed wearing beautiful dresses and jewels, which was something that only noblemen and women used to do until then. Call them wannabes, but definitely they wanted to show off. But when these two families started fighting and a murder in a church on Easter day took place, the poor painter found himself in the middle of the feud, lost all his commissions and had to go back to his little village near Bergamo”.

Was this an economic recession ante litteram? “Yes, in a way it was. But in my opinion this is when Moroni became a great painter. The rich and the beautiful had gone for good and he had to look to common people to make a living. So, after all the turmoil, Moroni started painting portraits of simple workers in his studio, with the same background, the same chair, the same yellow book in their hands. It was nothing fancy, but not having to concentrate on their beautiful dresses and their wannabe poses, he started concentrating on what he really saw, becoming the first realistic painter of the history of art. “The Tailor”, for example, is a real masterpiece, despite the fact that it’s a portrait of a man captured in his everyday job, chalk and scissors in hand. Nobody had done that before, but many would do it in the future. Think about Degas and his laundresses, who would find the same realism a couple of century after. Moroni worked as a small suburban photographer, but he was developing his great art”.

“…Nobody had done that before, but many would do it in the future.”

Why has he been considered a minor painter then? “He never left his small village and his circle. During the 19th century, when the British, the French and the Germans use to do the famous Grand Tour, they favoured Florence, Venice, Rome and maybe Milan, but nobody would care for Bergamo. That’s why they missed Moroni and why he remained unknown until Charles Eastlake, the first director of the National Gallery, bought several paintings by him. In this sense Moroni is more British than the Queen. And he is definitely a forerunner of CaravaggioVelazquez and Manet”. The exhibition about Giovanni Battista Moroni will be at the Royal Academy of Arts until 25th of January 2015. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk