near Bergamo 1520 /1524 – Albino 1578
Portrait of a priest
[Ritratto di sacerdote] c.1565-70
oil on canvas
87.5 (h) x 70.2 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giacamo Carrara 1796
Giovan Battista Moroni became the pre-eminent painter of portraits in Lombardy in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. His subdued naturalism suited the puritanical burghers of Northern Italy, while a superb technique meant he was always in demand for private commissions as well as church projects. Portrait of a priest brings to the forefront that atmosphere of religious ferment sweeping Europe in the years following the Protestant Reformation. A Bergamo painter, Moroni lived in Trent during the Tridentine Council in the 1540s to 1560s when the Catholic Church worked out its strategy for the Counter Reformation. Precepts to deal with this existential threat included not only religious doctrines and political tactics, but also artistic policies which had moral dimensions. These implied restraint—avoidance of extravagance and flamboyance, not only in dress and behaviour but in its representation—and seriousness of purpose.
With his forefinger marking the place in his book, a bearded priest regards us. He leans on a simply carved marble block, perhaps part of a wall: it is not new nor grand, but damaged or worn. Rather than a straightforward reference to Classical architecture as was usual in the past, Moroni may be reminding us of the passage of time and shortness of human life, or of the state of the Church and the necessity for its conservation and renewal. Such allusions were part of Counter Reformation art before the Baroque declarations of theatricality and confidence which would follow in the seventeenth century. The priest, shown in three-quarter length, is dressed conventionally in a simple white shirt, black robe and mozzetta, and wears no jewellery as befits his vows of poverty. His shirt has a tiny decorative edging, perhaps tatting rather than lace. The book emphasises the importance placed on learning in the late Renaissance, as it is no longer an extraordinary artefact of high culture, but rather a characteristic expected of a clergyman who must guide his flock.
In the last decade of his life Moroni employed neutral backgrounds, often grey, which suffuse light evenly over the subject. The style was known as his maniera grigia, or grey manner. Here a pearly grey tones with the pale flesh and stone, becoming a little darker towards the bottom of the canvas; the brightest white comes from the book’s pages, which quickly blend into shadow. The priest casts a gentle shadow onto the stone. There is so little extraneous detail in the composition that the viewer’s attention is forced onto the subject, simple and sober in his aspect. The artist tenders little opinion on character. Although Moroni would have known of the innovations of Venetian portraiture through Lorenzo Lotto, if not directly from Titian, he rejected Venetian political rule over Bergamo when it was reasserted. In the 1560s he moved back to his native village of Albino, about twelve kilometres from Bergamo, but continued to accept commissions from the town’s citizens.
 See Giovan Battista Moroni’s further portraits cats 69a, 69b, 70, 71.
 Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480–1556/1557); see cats 45, 46.
 Titian (1488/1490–1576).