Aimee Ng: “Truth and Fiction in Italian Renaissance Portraiture”

Aimee Ng: “Truth and Fiction in Italian Renaissance Portraiture”


– Good evening, I’m Ian Wardropper, director of The Frick Collection. I’m delighted to welcome
such a large crowd of people to this lecture. We’ve had to turn some people away and we need a larger auditorium, We’re working on that right now but I’m thrilled that there
are so many people here to hear the first lecture accompanying the exhibition Moroni: The Richness of
Renaissance Portraiture. This exhibition opened a week ago and will be on view until June 2nd. This is the first major show
on this artist in North America organized by tonight’s speaker, Aimee Ng, together with Arturo Galansino, director of the Palazzo
Strozzi in Florence and Simone Facchinetti an
independent researcher. Aimee took her BFA at
the Department of Art Queen’s University in Ontario and PhD at Columbia in 2012. She has lectured and written on topics stemming from her dissertations concerned artists and the Sack of Rome in 1527. Before joining The Frick as
associate curator in 2015, she was Joseph F. McCrindle
research assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum, and lecturer at Columbia
from 2012 to 2014. Her work for The Frick
began as a guest curator for The Poetry of Parmigianino’s
Schiava Turca in 2014, an exhibition I think many
of us remember fondly. And she contributed to Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action, wonderful exhibition that
was here 2015 to 2016. In 2017, she organized
with Stephen K. Scher, The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher
Collection of Portrait Medals and has been working for a number of years on the catalog of the entire
Scher Medals Collection. This is a huge set of
volumes and undertaking much of which is a
promise gift to The Frick. The catalog we’re anxiously
awaiting to appear later this spring. One of her future projects is an exhibition titled
Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of
Sculpture in Medici Florence which she’s co-edited
with Alexander J. Noelle and Xavier Salomon, of our staff and that opens this September. You can see that Aimee
has worked extensively in the years that she’s been here, particularly on renaissance projects. And I’m delighted that you’re
gonna hear from her tonight on her latest exhibition. Following the lecture you
can visit the exhibition, which should be open to
the public for half an hour after the close of this. Please silence your cellphones and I look forward as I’m sure you do to hearing her thoughts on this intriguing portraitist Moroni in a lecture titled Truth and Fiction in Italian
Renaissance Portraiture. Aimee. (audience applauding) – Thank you, Ian and thank you for all
that you have done to make the Moroni exhibition possible. Thanks to all of you for braving the cold to be here tonight, and welcome to those who
are tuning in on our webcast from around the world. The exhibition Moroni: The
Riches of Renaissance Portraiture is a joyous, pleasurable experience in The Frick’s galleries. But it was only possible
through the blood, sweat and tears, the hard work over a long period of time of many, many people within
The Frick and without. I acknowledge my co-curators
Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino and to name every friend
and colleague along the way who contributed in some
way to this project would take the rest of the night. Suffice it to say that this exhibition and its accompanying catalog are the product of an extensive
and wonderful community for which I’m deeply and humbly grateful. Giovanni Battista Moroni, he’s not well-known in this country and since the opening of
the exhibition last week I’m happy that Moroni has become the subject of new conversations on topics like his place in the history of European portraiture. As in was he more influential
than previously thought? Here for example, Moroni’s bearded man with a letter from the private collection. It’s been proposed to have inspired Rembrandt’s Nicolaes Ruts on view in The Frick’s west gallery. There’s no secure evidence for this, only suggestive circumstantial evidence but it’s worth talking about. Or the socioeconomics of Moroni’s patrons with regard to The Tailor, and the question of who had
access to art in Moroni’s world. The Tailor which is on loan from the National Gallery in London which is home to the largest number of Moroni’s outside of Italy. The Tailor is Moroni’s
most famous painting and deservedly so. It’s extraordinary for its
moment in the 16th century for its portrayal of a
tradesman at work as a gentleman as if in stopped action with such psychological presence, and the topic of artistic genius. In the last week it has
been asked about Moroni who was nowhere near as famous as older contemporaries
like Titian and Bronzino. Did Moroni deserve to be
more famous than he was? Was Moroni a forgotten
genius or just forgotten. This is a difficult question to answer first of all because in the
context of European art history, the term genius is a problematic one connected as it is to myths of the individual artistic genius, the implicitly male superlative artist who basically emerged
fully formed from the womb to surpass his contemporaries. Such myths can belittle
the role of training of financial needs and constraints, the importance of assistance even in creating a work of art. So in the myth of Michelangelo
is genius for example, baby Michelangelo drinks
the milk of a wet nurse who was a stone cutter’s wife thus explaining in part
his unrivaled talents in carving stone. For Moroni, a look at his
entire known artistic outputs suggests that he wasn’t always striving to demonstrate genius. A roughly 200 surviving paintings, about 75 are religious works. Here’s his Madonna and Child with the four doctors of the church and St. John the Evangelist
in Trent, an early work. And a late work on the right, The Assumption of the
Virgin in the Brera, Milan. His religious paintings
can be somewhat dry and they’re often derived directly from compositions by his
teacher, Moretto de Brescia. I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t say this but I have a hard time
telling them all apart. Moroni is much better known
for good reason I think for his portraits of which about 125 are currently attributed to him today. Not all of them are as exciting or innovative as the tailor. Indeed, many of them aren’t. He doesn’t seem to have ever gone to the major artistic centers of his day like Venice, Florence or Rome, and here are some of the major
cities marked on the map. Instead, he lived and
worked almost exclusiveLy in his native, Albino and
Bergamo up in the alps with short stints in Brescia where he trained with Moretto de Brescia, and in Trent up near the German border during the Catholic council of Trent. Who were his patrons in these
somewhat regional cities? If you flip through Mina Gregori’s 1979 catalog Rasone of Moroni’s Works which is still the authoritative source, you’ll see numerous portraits
of the local bourgeoisie that must have been his bread and butter. That must have paid his bills. Lots of portraits of white men in black in similar formats, here’s another page. Individually they’re not bad portraits, many presenting highly
individualized features with psychological presence, but the formula is evident. Moroni responded to the
demands of his market just as most if not all
early modern artists did. What opportunities to express genius were available to someone like Moroni outside of the big cities
and the big patrons, someone who was clearly kept busy painting the local middle class? Should an artist be
evaluated for signs of genius according to one extraordinary work? Or should he be judged on the entirety of his artistic output? Every so often when he had the chance, a slightly more prominent patron or someone looking for something a little more interesting, Moroni produced something spectacular. My talk tonight explores
some of these moments that reveal a much more interesting artist than his many men in black might suggest. To tell the story of Moroni, one kind of has to go
back to the beginning or at least to one beginning. In one origin story of the
invention of portraiture told by the ancient Roman
writer Pliny the Elder, one of the first portraits was the result of a woman’s impulse. Yay. Pliny’s myth was particularly popular among 18th century artists hence I’m showing you here a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby in the National Gallery of Art Washington. Pliny recounts that a young woman, the daughter of the potter,
Butades of Sicyon in Corinth, Pliny never actually gives her a name and this painting is
called The Corinthian Maid, but her name was Cora. The young woman, Cora, was
in love with a young man who was about to depart on a long journey. And of course in those days one was never really sure if one would make it
back from a long journey. Before the young man leaves, she traces the outline of his shadow as it’s cast against a wall. And this outline her
father fills in with clay. And Pliny’s story is actually
about the woman’s father inventing the first known relief portrait. He isn’t actually crediting
the daughter with anything but in fact it was she
who acting on the urge to capture her lover’s appearance to leave a trace of him to
look at when he was gone. It was she who drew the first portrait. Why this guy fell asleep
during their farewell, I have no idea. (audience laughing) In David Allan’s version in the National Galleries of Scotland he’s a little bit livelier. (audience laughing) This was one significant aspect of Italian renaissance portraiture, the impulse to imitate
someone’s appearance so closely that the painting or sculpture seems to capture the person
exactly as he or she looked, to make he who is absent
seem to be present. Recording appearances precisely was certainly not the
only aim of portraiture which was of course a vehicle to shape, embellish, even invent one’s identity. But praise for portraiture
in the Italian renaissance often took the form of saying that the portrait lacked only breath, that it was so convincing
alikeness of the person that it just needed the breath of life and it might walk right out of its frame. And I’m showing you Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione from the Louvre as a famous example of how portraits serve to make someone who is
absent seem present. Castiglione the sitter and a poem, a well-known poem about the portrait suggest that Raphael painted it so well, the likeness was so effective that when Castiglione was away from home his wife and young sons
spoke to the painting nearly expecting it to respond. I just wanna underline something that’s very well-recognized by now but it’s very hard to fully appreciate the value, presence, function, pleasure of a painted portrait in the renaissance in our present day
context of so many photos of our loved ones on our
phones, literally thousands. It can be hard to imagine a time in which most people never had a
single portrait painted of themselves made in any medium, and those with the
wealth and means to do so may have only had one
portrait made of them in their entire lives. Back to the renaissance. The praise that a portrait is so life-like that it lacks only breath
was applied also to portraits that appear to modern
eyes more overtly stylized like those of Bronzino and here’s The Frick’s Bronzino portrait of Lodovico Capponi and perhaps Bronzino’s most
famous and most copied, Eleonora di Toledo in
the Uffizi Galleries. In Bronzino’s portraits, his sitters probably looked something like what he painted but they also seem to
have been transformed into enchantingly
beautiful ivory creatures with impossibly long hands. But Bronzino’s portraits could still be and were praised in the same way, celebrated for life likeness
to lack only breath. Because portraits were meant to have both likeness and art. Editing, selecting, adherence
to ideals of beauty, portraits should present
a sitter’s best self even a better self. Meanwhile in the
portraiture of Michelangelo invention prevailed over likeness. When Michelangelo’s sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici were criticized for not resembling them in real life, the sculptor reportedly responded that in a thousand years no one would know that the real Lorenzo and
Giuliano didn’t look like this. The images he invented of
them, however, would endure and they certainly have. Moroni’s portraits have
long been characterized by scholars, by this, by their apparent
faithfulness to their models. And here is Moroni’s Gabriele Albani from a private collection which you can see next
door in the east gallery. Yes, that is a lump on his forehead. No, it has not been securely diagnosed. (audience laughing) Moroni’s naturalism has been seen both negatively and positively. Negatively, in the early 20th century the American art historian
Bernard Berenson condemned Moroni as the only mirror portrait painter that Italy ever produced, calling him uninventive, that he gives us sitters
no doubt as they looked. Berenson is recalling an old criticism, one that goes way back to
Ancient Greece and Rome, an artist should not copy
his models too slavishly. Again, there should be some art. And a similar debate
continues in contemporary art, I’ve seen art students,
professional artists criticized for producing
what’s sometimes called photorealistic paintings. The argument goes, where
is the art in that? What is there besides
superficial technical ability to do what a camera could do
in a fraction of a second? And it’s true that Moroni
gives the impression especially in his comparatively
few portraits of women. So out of about 125 portraits, only about 15 depict women. This one, the portrait of a woman is in a private collection. He does not seem to have
idealized his women. Here for example in
Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova from The Metropolitan Museum of Art her wrinkled skin,
sagging neck with a goiter yet she’s still presented with dignity, all of Moroni’s sitters are. Moroni’s women have not
be treated very well by art historians. Regarding this bust
portrait of Isotta Brembati for example from Accademia
Carrara in Bergamo. In the 19th century, Jacob
Burckhardt referred to her evidently provincial beauty. And Otto Mundler, the traveling agent for the National Gallery in
London in the mid-19th century derided her flat nose and thick lips. One senses a darker undertone
too Mundler’s comments. These responses, albeit
of the 19th century, stand in stark contrast to these sometimes extravagant responses to Moroni’s men. I have heard from more
people than I care to count that Moroni’s tailor is their
art historical boyfriend. (audience laughing) And then there was the
kind of amazing review of the Moroni show in
London five years ago by the journalist Jonathan Jones. “Moroni loves men,” he wrote. “He loves their beards, their swords, “their finely hosed legs. “His portraits of men
are erotically charged “in a way his pictures of women are not. “Moroni paints men with
such emotional depth “because he’s in love with them.” End quote. I don’t know yet that I’ve figured out Moroni’s women and his men. I don’t think he painted
women the way he did because he didn’t like them. Whatever modern responses may be, Moroni’s portraits of women
like Lucrezia and Isotta seem to have been valued by
their patrons and owners. The portrait of Lucrezia
on the left for example remained installed in
the Convent of Sant’Anna for which it was commissioned until the late 18th century in Albino. And the portrait of Isotta on the right which also remained in
that family for centuries seems to have won Moroni commissions for portraits of other
members of her family, and probably led to his painting of the full length portrait
of her a few years later. Was the lack of obvious idealization valued as a respect for
their women’s appearance? I’d like to think so
but one can’t be sure. And modern art historians
have put a positive spin on what Berenson saw as
Moroni’s uninventive, slavish copying. In response to Berenson,
the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi in the 1950s celebrated Moroni’s documents of society that are unmediated by style as if the portraits are
sort of ethnographic record of Moroni’s society. And Longhi put Moroni at the head of a tradition of Lombard naturalism that anticipated Caravaggio. And since the 1950s
scholarship has continued to uphold this positive spin, Moroni celebrated,
defined by his naturalism. I argue that there’s
more to Moroni than this, that naturalism itself
is something to probe and play with in Moroni’s art. The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture and the title of our exhibition is obviously about much
more than the lavish and opulent objects we brought
together with the paintings. It refers also to the
portraits themselves, the fictions, inventions and liberties that belie Moroni’s illusions of having simply recorded reality. Right off the bat, in the context of early modern portraiture, the very concept of likeness to a model should itself be questioned. And to give you something to think about, since the 19th century these two portraits have been believed to
depict the same person, Isotta Brembati five years apart and the younger one is on the right. And for good historical reasons as they were in Isotta’s family collection for centuries together. Recently, this portrait was proposed to be a third portrait
of Isotta 20 years later without external evidence. And so far, it’s not an identification that’s widely supported by scholars But still have a look and all three are in the exhibition. In the context of early
modern portraiture, the very concept of likeness to a model should be questioned. In a sense, the ways
that Moroni’s portraits have been described in
art historical literature as documents without stylistic mediation presenting physical truth. These words suggest that the appearances of 16th century people
can be known definitively. But with the possible
exception of life masks and death masks, this is simply not true. No matter how many
portraits of a person exists from the 16th century we can never be absolutely sure that we know exactly what
he or she looked like. Every portrait we have
from the renaissance has been mediated by an artist in some way no matter how subtly. And I don’t wanna belabor the point but just to give an obvious example, maybe an exaggerated example, of the same person painted
by two different artists around the very same time, here’s the Emperor Charles V in 1533 painted by Titian in the Prado and the same Charles V painted by Lucas Cranach The Elder
on the right also in 1533 at the Thyssen also in Madrid, each is mediated by the
artist in their own way. In Moroni’s portraits, the
effect of having studied someone directly from life can be so convincing
that it’s easy to forget that each portrait is constructed through a series of artistic decisions. And the same issues have
been addressed years ago by scholars in the work of
Northern European artist like Jan van Eyck. And there are several connections to make between Moroni and artists of the north. Writing about the Arnolfini
portrait for example in the National Gallery in London, the artist historian Lorne Campbell could have been referring to
Moroni when he wrote, quote, “It’s very easy to fall into the error “of thinking that van Eyck or Moroni “recorded with impassive
objectivity all that he saw “to take his image too literally, “to treat it as if it
were a photographic record “of a single instance.” And referring specifically
to the couple, he writes, “The couple are distorted and idealized, “the room is an imagined space, “the objects are arranged
with marvelous artifice.” End quote. And just because some of
Moroni’s women by the way are not particularly beautiful according to prevailing
standards of beauty, it still does not necessarily mean that they looked exactly like this. Indeed, these may well be idealized depictions of them. Yes, Moroni’s observations
of light and shadow, on flesh and fabric, the
precise features of the face, these aspects may have only been possible through direct study of his sitters. But that’s just one aspect
of a complex of factors that make up a portrait. There is any number of fictions in his and in any renaissance portrait. For example, like many
16th century artists, Moroni probably used
mannequins or stand-in models to study carefully the
intricacies of clothes. So the body is wearing the clothes and Moroni’s portraits may not necessarily be those of the sitter. And a number of scholars have noted that some of Moroni’s heads
are slightly too large or slightly misaligned
with their bodies like here in Gabriel de la Cueva on loan from the Grimaldi Gallery in Berlin. This suggests that
Moroni painted the heads independently from the
rest of the portrait which may have been
completed in various phases. The fact that a number of Moroni’s sitters bear a very similar pose, here for example a portrait that’s not in the exhibition on the right, Girolamo Virtova from a private collection has a similar pose to Gabriel de la Cueva, and shows that Moroni
retained a few formulas for composing his portraits. Some of the hands in Moroni’s portraits don’t exactly match faces. Particularly in depictions
of older sitters in which significant attention is paid to articulating the wrinkles of the face as in Lucrezia on the left or Giovanni Bressani on the right. In both it seems that the hands of a younger model were used, or at least there’s no indication that the hands are of the same age and expected appearance as the faces. And then there are the backgrounds, sometimes ambiguous, partly
indoor, partly outdoor spaces that seem to be allegorical
in the way they portray through sprouting vegetations, streaks of moisture,
a sense of age, decay, the passing of time. And I won’t say anymore of the backgrounds in Moroni’s portraits because Professor David Kim
will be giving a lecture on this topic on May 8th and you won’t want to miss that. Moroni was not merely a documentarian and even if he did not revolutionize the entire trajectory of Italian art, so in addition to being
geographically limited, he did not have an extensive studio or significant pupils. He still innovated
portraiture in several ways. Besides The Tailor and its
revolutionary depiction of a man at work, his Pace Rivola Spini
from the Accademia Carrara is a pendant to the portrait
of her husband, Bernardo Spini, but as she occupies her
own canvas on her own and stands fully upright at the same height as her husband, she’s also the earliest known independent full length portrait of a standing woman of
the Italian renaissance. This full length format
was generally reserved for European men in the
highest positions of power. Who decided that this noble woman from the outskirts of Bergamo should be portrayed in this way, the visual equal to her husband? Her? The artist? Her husband? I’ve wondered if Moroni and his sitters away from the expectations and regulations of the major cities like
Venice, Florence and Rome, if they enjoyed relative freedom to break with expected
social hierarchies and norms. We unite for the first
time in our exhibition Moroni’s three surviving
so-called sacred portraits. This is a genre that Moroni invented. It’s obviously derived
from the long tradition of donor portraits but here, the contemporary sitter
is the primary subject shown praying before sacred figures painted at a scale that suggests these paintings were
meant for domestic setting rather than a church. And these two are on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine
Arts in Richmond on the left and on the right from
a private collection. The third is from the National
Gallery of Art in Washington. The sacred portraits are kind of jarring and their contrast in style between the portraits which
like his other portraits appear to have been studied from life, and the religious figures which relate to or derive from other known works of art. The Virgin and Child for
example in this sacred portrait are modeled from a print by Albrecht Durer and I’m not showing the painting and print in proportion here, you’ll see in the gallery the
significant disparity in size and Moroni used a very small print made for personal devotion as a model for an almost monumental set of figures. Perhaps the unknown sitter owned an impression of the Durer print or maybe Moroni did. All of these examples
are treated extensively in the catalog that
accompanies the exhibition. But I’d like to draw attention to some of the more subtle liberties Moroni took in his portraits including in his most celebrated works that have escaped unnoticed until now. And the objects in the exhibition help us make these moments of
invention and license a little clearer. As you know, we’ve
included in the exhibition a number of objects that
represent types of things that appear in Moroni’s portraits. On the right, shown along side
the portrait of a young woman wearing a pink brocade dress, we have an example of 16th century brocade in blue from The Metropolitan Museum. For an artist best known
for his naturalism, for his convincing illusion
of having captured reality, what was he looking at? Obviously we can’t know what
his sitters really looked like but bringing together his paintings with related renaissance objects offers a chance to better
understand him as a painter. How he translated the world around him into strokes of paint. So in his portrait of a young woman, he articulates her pink silk brocade dress with little jots of yellow and white, and the detail on the right is taken from the left side of her dress to represent the reflection
of light on the surface. But to really grasp what he’s done here, how he’s translated the appearance of an actual fabric into quick strokes, short-handed strokes of paint, it takes understanding
what renaissance brocade really looked like. Now I’m guilty for thinking that I thought I knew
what brocade looked like. And yes, I knew it was gold
and silver shiny patterns woven into a textile but I didn’t fully get it until I looked really
closely at an actual piece of renaissance brocade. And I hope many of our visitors have the same kind of revelation. The example in the exhibition which is obviously not
from the sitter’s dress but is an example of the
same weaving technique, was probably more vibrantly
blue in the renaissance and it is actually two joined fabrics, the seam runs across the middle. And as we get closer and this detail is taken from the point indicated by the arrow, you’ll see what creates
the brocade effect. It’s made from extremely thin
strips of precious metal, let’s go a little bit closer. The detail on the left is
taken of the green square. Metal strips that are wound
by hand around silk thread then woven into the textile into loops to create the brocade effect. So looking at the paining alone, here again is the detail of the painting, Moroni’s painted brocade. The fabric seems vaguely
luxurious and expensive made up of jots of paint but having an actual
textile in the gallery drives home just how shorthand, how painterly Moroni’s portrayal is, and how opulent these fabrics were. Imagine how heavy wearing a dress brocaded like this would be where so much metal
hanging off the fabric. The microscopic view by the way was taken with the aid of our colleagues in the Textile Conservation
Studio at The Met. So I was completely shocked at the incredibly time-consuming and labor-intensive task of hand winding metal around silk thread
enough to make an entire dress. When I expressed this to one of the conservators, Cristina Carr, she looked at me and said, “There’s a reason there was a revolution.” (audience laughing) Fair enough. Seeing Moroni’s painterly translation of brocade into dabs of paint allows us also to see various
modes of painting at work in a single portrait. For example, meticulous
detail on the face, a special thank you to Shawn Digney-Peer and our colleagues in The Met’s Department of Paintings
Conservation for the Discovery made during preparation
for this exhibition. Here’s the title of the
area below the lower lip of tiny incisions into a wet paint layer. Possibly made with the
back of a paintbrush that manipulate the paint in ways that produce extraordinarily
subtle transitions between features. Below the tightly painted lays the dress is more loosely articulated and then the necklace which appears highly detailed from a distance upon close inspection seems almost to dissolve into abstract dabs of paint. There’s a lot more going
on in this painting than a record of reality. The objects in the exhibition also help us to draw attention to
objects in the paintings that one might not see at
first or not understand. So here again is Moroni’s Isotta Brembati, a noble woman of Bergamo. Many people think she’s holding a fluffy pink and white purse. But in her hand is a feather fan with a gold or gilt bronze handle. So we display alongside the portrait what may be the last surviving gilt bronze fan handle of the renaissance from the V and A in London and fans became a staple
of renaissance women, elite renaissance women’s accessories and her happens to be
particularly spectacular. And in our exhibition
we imitate Isotta’s fan by mounting the V and A’s fan handle with a modern, as in made in 2019, pink and white feather component. And the feather component is the work of The Frick’s associate
conservator Julia Day. Now I don’t know how you will feel about pink and white feathers but I hope you’ll agree
that it’s important to contextualize the handle which would never have been seen in the renaissance
denuded of its feathers. By the way they are marabou feathers which today usually means turkey, the downy under tail
which has the furry feel. Yes, you can order them online. (audience laughing) We display alongside
Isotta a pendant cross of emeralds and pearls similar to the one in the painting. Which in the painting it’s four rubies around a single emerald. The jewel and this type
was popular in Spain and among associates of the Spanish court like Isotta Brembati was. The example on the right is on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and its profusion of emeralds, 11 large stones suggests
that it might have been made after the Spanish colonized
Colombia in the late 1550s just after Isotta’s portrait was painted, and Colombia is still
well-known for its emeralds. Spain took over the rich
Colombian emerald mines to export huge quantities
into Europe and Asia and it raises the
question of where Isotta’s jeweler sourced his stones from. Was the composition of
stones selected by preference four rubies and an emerald, or is there only one emerald in her cross because they were relatively
more difficult to acquire, sourced from the exhausted Asian mines before the Colombian mines
were taken over by Spain. Most people don’t notice when
they look at the portrait because it doesn’t stand out very much but around her neck she’s wearing a marten fur, an animal of the weasel family. With a gold and enameled jeweled head, pearl earrings hanging from its ears. Just one jeweled marten head in gold and precious stones survived
from the renaissance and these kinds of objects
were often melted down and reconstituted in new jewelry according to changing tastes and fashions and when money was needed. This comes to us also on loan
from the Walters Art Museum. What were these things? And at the top there’s
a view of the Walters marten head jewel
attached to a modern pelt, a modern fur, like the fan. I think it’s important to contextualize the jewel mounted on an animal pelt, and this is how the object is displayed permanently at the Walters. For those of you who’ve never encountered a marten fur before, I’ve explained in the past that they’re sort of like pets that keep you warm but are dead. (audience laughing) But they are more complex than that. First and foremost, they were
a symbol of luxury and wealth and they became very popular among wealthy Italian renaissance women from the late 15th century
through the 16th century. Symbolically they’re associated with chastity and childbirth. Indeed in the renaissance, chastity and childbirth
were not mutually exclusive. And since the 19th century,
scholars have also believed that they functioned as flea pelts, purportedly to attract
fleas off of the human and onto the pelt. Now this theory is widely accepted though it’s been seriously questioned. Like why would a flea want to leave the flesh of a warm human for a cold, dead animal? In any case, the fur part was
as valuable in the renaissance as was the jeweled head. Some renaissance women
carried just the pelts and this is a portrait of
Isotta Brembati’s aunt, Lucina Brembati painted by Lorenzo Lotto in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo in which the pelt is carried
by a collar around its neck. It’s through looking at
rare objects like this that the viewer can
appreciate the material reality of these things, the technical challenges
they pose for the painter and how incredibly
lavish such objects were, many of them being works
of art in themselves. The gold head is a sheet of gold, hammered nearly paper thin, enameled and gilded, in some places gilded on top of the enamel, for example on the big
white bird above the nose. And its tooled to simulate
the texture of fur, mount with garnets, seed
pearls and a large ruby. The whiskers are synthetic, the tongue moves. And I’ll just reiterate that
the objects in exhibition are not the exact objects depicted in the paintings. Those are probably long
gone if they ever existed. The exhibition objects are
representative of these types, things that Moroni would have seen. But as much as the
portrait seems to record in meticulous detail all
of Isotta’s status symbols and her apparently unidealized face, this is not a snapshot to
use an anachronistic term, a snapshot of reality. And so I’ll point your
attention to her fabulous dress. Green with gold brocade and now you know very well how that brocade would have been made, and how much hand wound
gold thread that would take. Considering weaving techniques
used in the renaissance, it would be extremely unusual
to have a dress like this whose pattern grows so dramatically from the bodice to the skirt. I’m not saying it’s impossible, few things are impossible in the world but it would be extremely unusual and very difficult to
have a dress like this. It seems that Moroni has
partly fictionalized her dress. It’s probably based on a
dress she had, she wore which he used as a point of departure to create a more impressive visual effect. And I suggest a similar play with reality in the portrait of Gian Girolamo Grumelli better known as the Man in Pink, also from Palazzo Moroni. He was, by the way, Isotta’s husband and imagine what their closets look like. (audience laughing) His pink and silver woven silk clothing is just delectable to look at. The clothing is almost the
protagonist of his portrait. But take a look at his sword carrier. It seems to be partly invisible so there should be a cross strap which goes across the front
to attach to the scabbard as in Gabriel de la Cueva. In this case, the cross
strap is being pulled up because of the angle at which Gabriel’s rapier is
leaning against the plint. But the Man in Pink has
somehow hid his cross strap behind the fabric of his trunk hose or Moroni has painted it out in order not to interrupt
the scintillating pink hose with a black line. The same goes for the straps at the side, they’re articulated to
support the scabbard but nothing actually connects to the belt. The straps disappear into thin air. Moroni seems to conserve the integrity of the pink trunk hose by defying physics. And I suspect these
liberties taken with Isotta and the Man in Pink have gone unnoticed by art historians until now because the portraits
are painted in such a way that it seems to be a convincing and meticulous representation of reality. Now it’s interesting to think about how these portraits were perceived by their first viewers. These fictions would have been obvious to Moroni’s sitters who
would know very well how a sword carrier is supposed to look and who would have been aware of the kinds of patterns
possible with woven brocade. What did they think of
Moroni playing with reality in a way that’s much
less obvious to us now? Moroni helped to shape his reputation as an artist who captured
the world as he saw it. This portrait of the
poet Giovanni Bressani on loan from the National
Galleries in Scotland, if you’re noticing that
there is something different about this portrait, you’re right. There is much more stuff in it, stuff piled on a table that seems to distance the viewer in a way that none of
his other portraits do. The way Bressani is
painted is also different. So individual strokes
of paint are apparent. There’s something stony,
a little rigid and dry in his articulation of the face. Just compare for example the face of Gabriele Albani, another older man with a face of Bressani. One smooth, Bressani is brushy. The explanation for this difference might be found on the base of the foot shaped inkwell
in Bressani’s portrait. Translated from the Latin
the inscription says Giovanni Battista Moroni painted him whom he did not see. This message coupled with
a date on the portrait of 1562, so two years
after Bressani’s death indicates that Moroni probably
painted him posthumously. So he looks sort of lifeless because Moroni did not
paint him from life. What is more, Moroni
probably based his painting on a portrait medal on loan to
us from a private collection, this is suggested by the fact that the portrait medal shows
Bressani with a skull cap, with a circular ornament on the front and a knot at the temple. This is not apparent in the painting but they are in x-rays of it. So Moroni seems to have started with the same head decoration as the medal and either painted it out or the details have
been obscured over time. The inscription on the inkwell, I did not see this man seems to explain why it looks so different
from his other portraits. Those he sees with his
own eyes it seems to say he can paint as his eyes saw them but he adjusts his style to articulate that this sitter was
not studied from life. In a way Moroni’s self-consciously shapes his own artistic persona. I’m reaching the end of my lecture. And to close I wanna share
a few thoughts about Moroni that came out of having
produced this exhibition. One is that the sense of the local is important to Moroni’s career and in these two portraits from the National Gallery
of Ireland on the left and I showed you the one
on the right earlier on. In both, a single word is legible on the letters on the
table and in the hand. The name of a city on the left, Albino, Moroni’s birthplace. And on the right, written
on the letter in his hand, Bergamo, also where he
spent most of his life. These men were probably from these cities or lived in them. They were of Moroni’s world. Moroni’s geographic limitations seemed to have shaped his
career and fame or lack of it but his world was much broader than this. Bergamo was at the crossroads
of Spanish Milan and Venice, gateways to the rest of the world. So even if he did not travel, people and objects came to him. So another important role
of the objects in the show is to make this point, however subtly, German prints made their way to him, probably German armor too. I didn’t talk about the armor but you can see it in the exhibition. Spanish patrons like Gabriel de la Cueva, a Spanish duke who
became governor of Milan a few years after Moroni painted him. And Spanish culture like
Isotta’s pendant cross, goods from America, from the new world. Moroni was not a world traveler but his world was rich nonetheless. There’s much about Moroni
that we don’t fully understand including his techniques, his process. How did he achieve naturalism for which he is so well-known? I haven’t even touched on
the one portrait drawing that has been attributed
to Moroni, not unanimously in the GDSU in Florence which raises more questions than answers about how he made his portraits. Or the first evidence of under drawing in a Moroni portrait
discovered in preparation for this exhibition in The
Met’s Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova, so we’re continuing to investigate these aspects of his art. And regarding Moroni himself, not a single document
related to any work of art, paintings, portraits he
produced has been found nor any portraits of Moroni. So one self-portrait has been proposed, the figure in brown in the crowd in the Assumption of The Virgin which I showed you at
the start of this talk. I’m sure you remember it
well, it’s so distinctive. A late work. There’s no external
evidence to support this but some say it looks like a good candidate for a self-portrait, that sort of modest looking
chap peering out at us. We don’t know why he made the
geographic decisions he did, why he remained so close to home. Whatever motivated this decision, it appears to have had
significant repercussions for the kind of career that he had. And he may have been very happy with the kind of career that he had. Moroni’s portraits, his best portraits showcase his brilliance that the Man in Pink’s gravity defying sword carrier seems to have
gone unnoticed for so long may be a testament to the
power of his illusions, the spell they can cast on his viewers. Over the last week I’ve
seen the spell at work as visitors stand in front of this and other paintings in the
oval room and east gallery. There are many questions yet to answer about Moroni’s portraits but
one thing is crystal clear. Moroni’s portraits reward
and deserve another look. And so I invite you to
look again at Moroni in the galleries which
will be open until 7:30. Thank you very much. (audience applauding)

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