Giovan MORONI | Portrait of a child of the house of Redetti [Ritratto di bambina di casa Redetti]

near Bergamo 1520 /1524 – Albino 1578

Portrait of a child of the house of Redetti [Ritratto di bambina di casa Redetti] c.1570
oil on canvas
43.3 (h) x 33.2 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

Giovan Battista Moroni, unlike Titian, Rubens or Holbein,[1] did not travel to the courts of Europe to paint kings, courtiers or military heroes. He was never in Rome or Florence, and may not have visited nearby Venice.[2] Instead he portrayed the people of Bergamo and its surrounds—the local aristocracy, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a sculptor, a tailor.[3] These portraits are regarded as some of the finest painted in Renaissance Italy and are much admired for their naturalism, vitality and directness. Moroni captures a moment of arrested activity, a shifting glance, the turn of a head, the transfer of weight from one leg to another. We start to wonder, when looking at Moroni’s portraits, what has happened before now, or might be about to happen next.

A girl child of the house of Redetti is shown dressed for best. She must be about four or five years old, no longer a bimba, not yet a ragazza, her cheeks still full, her hands dimpled. Her dress and pose make her look much more mature. The angle of her left arm, which is outside the composition, suggests that she was standing, supporting her weight on a chair or table. She wears a crystal necklace and a coral bracelet. The jewels of her earrings are repeated in the elaborate ornament that secures her hair in a rather severe bun. A delightful baby fuzz frames her forehead, and the ruff at her neck echoes the pattern of curls. The gold and black of her silk dress, with its slashed sleeves, is emphasised against the white of her undershirt. Moroni uses a mass of horizontal brushstrokes to convey the highlights on the gold fabric. Portrait of a child of the house of Redetti is truly a tour de force of painting.

Moroni records beautifully the little girl’s patience, even weariness, in posing for her portrait. At the same time he manages to suggest a certain pride, her awareness of her role and place in Bergamo society. This painting is unusual in Moroni’s oeuvre, and Italian portraiture generally, in showing a child alone rather than with a parent or other adult. Traditionally children served to indicate the relationship, the inheritance of wealth or knowledge, a transition from one generation to the next. But here we find little to suggest the purpose of the portrait. Indeed, although the painting is thought to have been owned by the Redetti family, we know neither the name of the girl nor whether she was, definitely, a child of that house. Moroni’s portraits in the 1560s and 1570s often incorporate classical ruins or architectural settings, providing clues to the sitter’s role or identity. Later these are replaced by plain, atmospheric, often monochrome backgrounds. For this work the silvery grey serves beautifully to emphasise the girl’s grey-blue eyes, to highlight her necklace and the rich gold of her dress. It also hints, more poetically, at an unknown future for this child.

Lucina Ward

[1] Titian (1488/1490–1576); Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640); Hans Holbein (c.1497–1543).

[2] Scholars differ. Pillsbury says Moroni did not visit Venice; Humfrey thinks, on the balance of probability, that he would have done so: see Edmund P. Pillsbury, ‘Two portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni’, in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 58, no. 3, March 1971, pp. 74–84; and Peter Humfrey, Giovanni Battista Moroni: Renaissance portraitist, Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 2000.

[3] Pillsbury, p. 75.