Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, Lombard, born no later than 1524, died 1578)
Oil on canvas; 36 x 27 in. (91.4 x 68.6 cm)
Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915 (30.95.255)
Moroni's reputation among contemporaries is summed up in a well-known anecdote attributed to Titian. When two Venetian patricians were about to take up governmental positions in Bergamo, Titian advised them to have Moroni paint their portraits if they wanted them done "from nature." This painting of Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova (1490??1557) brilliantly makes this point. It depicts a woman from one of the most important families in Bergamo, who was widowed young (her veil is of a type often worn by widows) and went on to found the Carmelite convent of Sant'Anna in Albino in 1525. She was probably painted in 1556, the year she made her will; the inscription records her likely death date of 1557. The abbess was buried at Sant'Anna, and the portrait remained there for more than two centuries, until shortly after the convent's suppression in 1797.
Lucrezia is shown in a plain Carmelite habit, holding a book and standing behind a ledge with marble scrollwork bearing a long inscription. Moroni has been unsparing in his description of her: she is unadorned and wrinkled and has a small goiter. Her simple shape is set against an absolutely neutral background. This depiction is in keeping both with the artist's approach to portraiture and with the sitter's devout, unpretentious lifestyle. Yet at the same time, this is a work of marvelous elegance. Like many Brescian and Bergamese paintings, it is cool in tonality, built around a medley of grays, with innumerable subtle transitions in tone throughout the background and fictive stonework. Only the abbess' brown habit, the warm flesh tones, and the blue gray of the edges of the book's pages provide contrast.