Giovanni Battista Moroni. “The Tailor (Il Sarto, or Il Tagliapanni),” circa 1570. Oil on canvas. (The National Gallery, London)
Art critic

One of the most celebrated portraits of the Renaissance has traveled from London to New York to take its place in a jewel of an exhibition.

What is this celebrated portrait? It’s not the Mona Lisa, and it’s not Henry VIII. It’s not the portrait of a Roman pope or a Venetian doge. And it’s not by Raphael, Michelangelo or Dürer.

It’s of a tailor standing at a table. He holds a pair of glinting black shears in his right hand and the corner of a black cloth, marked with chalk lines, in his left. He’s about to cut the fabric but has first paused to look at us. Head slightly cocked; one side of his face in shadow; one brown eye catching the light, the dark pouch under it like a standing invitation to a secret debauch; the other eye professionally narrowed . . .

You could pout and pose for your cellphone camera all night and not come close to capturing this look. One wants to call it dignified, self-possessed, attentive. It’s all of those things. But it’s also something else — something more carnal, uncontained and challenging.

The portrait is by Giovanni Battista Moroni. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry. His work warrants attention — lots of it — but there aren’t many of his paintings in the United States, which is why “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” at the Frick Collection is such a treat.

It’s a tight show of nearly two dozen portraits and is the first North American exhibition devoted to Moroni. It is a rare chance to relish the sumptuous colors, hyper-attentive detailing and remarkable psychological acuity of this underrated Renaissance star.

“The Tailor” has been acclaimed since at least 1660, when it was described in a famous poem by Marco Boschini as “so beautiful and well painted that he’s more eloquent than a lawyer.” But of course the subject of the portrait is neither a lawyer, a nobleman nor a king. He’s a tradesman.

Italian Renaissance portraits of tradesmen — let alone tradesmen portrayed in the middle of working at their trade — are almost nonexistent. Annibale Carracci, working in Bologna in the 1580s, painted butchers in a butcher shop. And in Northern Europe around 1560, Bruegel and his progeny were making the everyday, secular lives of ordinary people the subject of great art. But there was little comparable to Moroni’s tailor in Italy when it was painted, circa 1570.

How much of real life do we want to see in paintings and art galleries? “The more the better” would be the dutifully democratic response today. But it wasn’t always so.

Many critics resisted the idea that a portrait — intended as an advertisement for human dignity — should be wasted on a tradesman. They didn’t want portraits to lose their formality and gravitas by looking too much like real life.

Moroni ratchets up the lifelikeness of “The Tailor.” He does it with a contrivance that has become a standby of portraiture but was a radical innovation at the time. He creates the illusion that we, the viewer, have interrupted the man at work in his actual workplace.

Critics were skeptical. Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, a Milanese painter and art theorist in the 16th century, worried that the increasing popularity of such lifelike portraits was causing the genre to lose “almost all its dignity.” The influential Venetian writer Pietro Aretino wrote in 1546: “Shame on you, our century, for tolerating that even tailors and butchers appear to be living in painting.”

So Moroni’s “Tailor” really marked a profound democratic turn in portraiture, one that paved the way for portraits by Rembrandt and Frans Hals in the next century, and for moderns such as Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Lucian Freud and Alice Neel.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this particular tailor was poor and marginalized. Anyone can see that he could afford to dress well. His cream-colored doublet and rich, rusty-brown hose and codpiece were made from fine wool. His delicate gold ring with a red stone suggests wealth and status.

A tailor to the Medici in Florence at that time earned as much as their court painter, Agnolo Bronzino. But neither tailor nor painter was highborn. And fine wool was not silk brocade, which is what Moroni’s more-elevated subjects wore.


Giovanni Battista Moroni. "Isotta Brembati," ca. 1555-56. (Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo/The Frick Collection)

Giovanni Battista Moroni. "Gabriele Albani," 1572-73. (Private collection/The Frick Collection)

His main clients were not, after all, tailors. They were a tight circle of aristocrats and humanists around Bergamo, northeast of Milan. Moroni spent most of his life in Bergamo and some in nearby Brescia, to which his family moved when he was a child. Both places were part of the Venetian empire, but closer to Milan than to Venice, so their culture was strongly affected by Milan’s Spanish Habsburg rulers.


Venetian "Marten’s Head," ca. 1550–59. Gold with enamel, rubies, garnets and pearls with modern pelt. (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Moroni’s style is fundamentally Venetian: It combines Titian’s soft, permeable touch with the heightened naturalism of Lorenzo Lotto. You can also find traces of the Mannerist intensity of the Florentines Bronzino and Pontormo, and some of the more thoroughgoing Teutonic detail of Hans Holbein and Dürer.


Roman nude male torso made of marble. (Bridgeman Images/Detroit Institute of Arts)

Moroni was disparaged by the great art historian Bernard Berenson as being a “mere portrait painter” and “uninventive.” That seems unfair. The aim of the Frick show, organized by Aimee Ng, Simone Facchinetti and Arturo Galansino, is to show that Moroni’s almost “maniacal attention to detail,” as the curators say, coexisted with a great deal of artistic invention.

To that end, the curators have carefully sourced and elegantly displayed a number of objects related to items in the paintings: a fan of pink and white feathers, a rapier, a Roman sculpture of a nude male torso, a marten with a bejeweled head (a common accessory known as a zibellini), an exquisite fragment of brocaded velvet and, yes, a pair of black shears used for cutting fabric. The idea is to encourage the viewer to contemplate whether Moroni was as literal-minded as Berenson claimed.

Interesting as this is, it’s a distraction, perhaps, from thinking about why some of Moroni’s portraits feel so urgent and compelling and why others feel stiff and labored. I don’t think it’s hard to find the answer.


Giovanni Battista Moroni. "Bust of Isotta Brembati," ca. 1550. (Accademia Carrara/Fondazione Accademia Carrara, Bergamo)

In the very best of them — “Portrait of a Young Woman,” “Bust Portrait of a Young Man With an Inscription” and the portraits of Alessandro Vittoria, Gabriel de la Cueva and Gabriele Albani — Moroni seems less concerned with fussing over the light and texture of his subjects’ accessories than on getting their faces and flesh tones right. And not just “getting them right,” but using all of his artistry, touch and sense of truth to convey their urgent, unmediated, intelligent, animal presence.

A story was told, and embellished in the 17th century, about a man from Bergamo coming to Venice and asking Titian to paint his portrait. Accustomed to painting emperors, popes, princesses, doges, kings and courtesans — or perhaps just unable to find time in his busy schedule — Titian told the gentleman to go back to Bergamo, where there was a painter, Moroni, whose portraits were better than his own. The man — it may have been Gabriele Albani — took his advice. A “stupendous portrait,” goes the story, resulted.

Was Titian — arguably the greatest painter ever — merely alighting on a convenient way to decline a bothersome request? Was his praise of Moroni an underhanded criticism, a way of saying: “You provincials like to ooh and aah over details, as if painting were a mere trade, a craft. You have just the man for the job back home. So leave me alone, I’m operating at a different level — at the level of art”?

That’s certainly one interpretation.

My own instinct is that Titian admired Moroni. How could he not? He would have been flattered to recognize his own influence on the talented painter from Bergamo. And he would not have seen Moroni (who was wonderful but limited) as a threat. So Titian would have felt free, I think, to see Moroni clearly, to admire him sincerely and to express that admiration unguardedly.

We, 450 years later, are at liberty to do the same.

Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture Through June 2 at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St., New York. frick.org.