Giovanni Battista Moroni, wrote Bernard Berenson, was ‘the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced’. Indeed, Berenson continued, warming to his theme, ‘even in later times, and in periods of miserable decline, that country, Mother of the arts, never had a son so uninventive, nay, so palsied, directly the model failed him’. It was a harsh judgment, but the great connoisseur inadvertently managed to put his finger on exactly what was so marvellous about his victim.
A splendid exhibition at the Royal Academy triumphantly demonstrates that when Moroni actually did have a model in front of him, he was one of the most remarkable painters of later 16th-century Europe. He was, however, one who does not seem to fit easily into his time and place.