Moroni, Giovanni Battista: Don Gabriel de la Cueva, Count of Albuquerque (1560)

The Independent's Great Art series
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Also in this article:
About the artist

Shakespeare showed little interest in the visual arts. Paintings and statues do appear in his plays, and sometimes their presence is crucial - the two portraits in Hamlet, the statue in A Winter's Tale. But they never get his imagination going in the same way that, say, visions and hallucinations do. He seems to have found still images a bit boring.

Art-lovers, though, have not always felt able to return the lack of interest. Shakespeare has become a gold standard across all the arts, and a comparison to Shakespeare has proved to be an irresistible form of praise. Hogarth was probably the first to benefit. Quite early in his career he was named as "Shakespeare in painting", the point of likeness being his ability to create a wealth of characters, plus the general literariness of his pictures.

Then this favour fell on Rembrandt, at first because, like Shakespeare, he seemed to be a genius in spite of all kinds of gross imperfection. Later, the compliment became more wholehearted. Rembrandt's profound, all-round understanding of human nature made him clearly the Shakespeare of art.

More recently, Velazquez has become another candidate. Specifically, his sense of the world as a grand illusion has been compared to Prospero's speech about "such stuff as dreams are made on". These comparisons are fine, but they work at an abstract level. They indicate some general Shakespearian quality in an artist. There's a shared genius or spirit or vision. What the comparisons don't do is point to any equivalent, in painting, to the experience of Shakespearian drama. They don't focus on the way that pictures can be theatrical.

There are paintings, though, that offer dramatic encounters on the Shakespearian model. They can set up a relationship between the figure and the viewer whose effect is very like that of a Shakespeare soliloquy.

Giovanni Battista Moroni painted his portrait of Don Gabriel de la Cueva, the Duke of Albuquerque, a few years before Shakespeare's birth. There are no links at all between the painter, or the sitter, and the poet. The Duke of Albuquerque was later appointed governor of the Duchy of Milan, but he certainly wasn't the inspiration for the Duke of Milan in The Tempest. And while today there are several excellent examples of Moroni's portraits in the National Gallery, they weren't known in England during Shakespeare's lifetime.

But if any picture captures those scenes when a brooding Shakespearian loner suddenly opens up, it's this one. The Duke of Albuquerque's grim and menacing looks tend to cast him among the bad or semi-bad characters: Claudius in Hamlet, say; Iago in Othello; Leontes in A Winter's Tale. The specific situation evoked is when such a character finds himself in solitude - or rather, alone in front of the audience, both in private and in public, and under a compulsion to declare himself.

Moroni's basic trick as a portraitist is to make the sitting itself into the subject. Someone having to stay still, in a particular place, while being looked at: in Moroni, this is not just the prerequisite for getting a lifelike depiction. It is a dramatic occasion. It is an encounter and a test of character. How a person behaves in the peculiar conditions of sitting for their portrait is the way they show their personality. Being portrayed is a situation to which they respond, and in which they reveal themselves.

The sitter in this portrait is literally cornered. We find him in a plain stone setting, made of hard edges and ridges and rectangles. He maintains his pose by backing on to a buttress of marble, half-leaning on it, holding on to it for support. But he is also backed against the wall behind him, which compels him up front. The picture is a stage from which he can't retreat, a confining niche allowing only one narrow exit. What's more, the framing of the scene feels like a zoom. This is not just a head-and-shoulders or head-and-torso view. The way the figure is oddly cut off mid-thigh makes it seem as if a full-length view had closed in on him. The portrait hems in and presses upon its subject.

At the same time, the man stands out. Against the masonry, he cuts a sharply separate figure, in black, white and scarlet. This is not a portrait where the figure is safely embedded, enveloped by clothes, props, curtains, shadows, absorbed into its environs. The figure is singled out, isolated within its scene.

Moroni sets up an encounter that is both intimate and tense. This isn't a cosy tête-à-tête, nor a confident public performance. We're brought up close to the figure, but it remains contained, alone. The drama of the picture is in the way that this solitary individual is exposed to view and responds to scrutiny, and reveals himself under the pressure of our gaze.

He holds himself sternly, defensively, in a closed pose, his hands near his body, one gripping his purse, the other the ledge but next to his sword's hilt. He turns guardedly, hunched, meeting the viewer's eye with a narrow, sly, hunted look. He has things he might tell (something more than the incised motto, that says he fears nothing, not even death). The picture is at a turning point, where a character, alone in front of an audience, is about to break his thoughts, confess, declare, justify himself. Shakespeare in painting? This is more like it.

About the artist

Giovanni Battista Moroni (c1520-1578), an artist from the north of Italy, is almost among the greats of painting - and in the art of portraiture, he surely is. His portraits are the opposite of the soulful Rembrandt mode, where faces and hands glow out of nonspecific darkness. Moroni belongs to the line of Holbein the Younger and Ingres and Wyndham Lewis. He gives you the whole social being, the precise details of costume, the display of character in stance, the alert presentation of self in the world. Several of Moroni's best portraits are in the National Gallery.

Comments