By Andonis Georgiou
Many years ago, when, as a young adult I started visiting the National Gallery, London for my own pleasure rather than being herded around by an over-bearing school teacher with my ramshackle classmates, a certain painting caught my eye. It was not Da Vinci’s ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ which I had gazed at constantly to prepare the ground for seeing his most famous ‘Mona Lisa’ across the Channel;
nor was it Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ where the exuberant god jumps out of his chariot to save the broken-hearted Ariadne surrounded by his noisy, circus-like entourage of satyrs and maenads etc.
It was a far quieter picture, one you would never think could gain a second glance from a greasy-haired teenager , let alone keep him coming back for more. The painting was ‘The Tailor’ by Giovanni Battista Moroni, an artist I had not heard of at the time. He may never have been an A-list artist of 16th century Italy, but this deceptively ‘simple’ portrait draws me back every time I visit the gallery. Why?
The tailor stands alone before his workbench, shears in one hand, black cloth in the other. Behind him is a totally grey wall,l shadowed so heavily it could almost be a winter’s fog. He wears a stylish but not over-stated costume of red breeches and cream jacket. His ruff is modest, it’s pattern repeated at his cuffs. And, we have seemingly walked into his workshop, the opening of the door and our footsteps have distracted him from his immediate action, but he is not disturbed. He glances up and across at us with the calm poise of a man who is a master of his trade. He could seemingly carry-on cutting to his line whilst listening to our inquiry, unperturbed.
There is an expressive quality here that never fails to transport me , not only to another era but ,more miraculously, to a point where I am just about to speak to the canvas and expect this person depicted in paint to actually reply.
At the Royal Academy of Arts in London’s Piccadilly is an exhibition of Moroni’s work, and ‘The Tailor’ along with 40 others, are there in exquisite display. This is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist in Britain, and it starts with paintings by his teacher, Moretto, so we can see the lessons learned by the pupil, thereafter. As Moroni later painted devotional works for the Catholic Church (there are several alter pieces in the show) we even have a rare chance to compare his work directly with Lorenzo Lotto as their respective versions of ‘The Trinity’ hang side by side.
Moroni went on to paint portraits of the aristocracy in Bergamo where he went to live, and became highly sought after . He also painted people of more modest means , and in several of these we can see that slight tilt of the head that gives the illusion of the sitter looking around at us, the viewers. This technique is repeated and honed in ‘The Tailor’ with consummate deftness.
The Renaissance figure ,Giorgio Vasari, mentioned Moroni’s teacher, Moretto in his book of the great artists, ‘Le Vite’, as Moretto was recommended for inclusion by the famous writer, Aretino. Unluckily for Moroni, when Vasari made a later journey to northern Italy to write the second edition of these chronicles, he did not visit Bergamo, so Moroni was missed out.
After seeing this show, and even on the merits of ‘The Tailor’ alone, Moroni would surely have made it into Vasari’s biographies.