Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755)1
was one of the most prominent and fertile of the 18th-century artists. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has added to its collections two caricatures and an oil painting by the artist.Pier Leone's father was also a prominent and long-lived painter. Giuseppe Ghezzi's considerable official success in late century Rome was accompanied by artistic independence, a vigorous style that often looks toward the Romanistic of more than a century ahead, and a religious fervor and practicality that appealed to a world changing from the theatrical bombast of the 17th century to the more sensible dramatics of the 18th. Giuseppe wanted Pier Leone to be not a painter but a draughtsman; but, by the first decade of the new century, Pier Leone had become a successful painter of portraits; was about to begin his important series of Roman altarpieces and wall decorations; and was replacing his father in the highest academic and courtly positions. Nevertheless, Giuseppe's early idea for his son's career was justified by an irony of later history: only Pier Leone Ghezzi the caricaturist, “the father of caricature,” was, until very recently, recalled or celebrated.The style of painting that Pier Leone adopted was almost exactly his father's. A rich, broad, and muscular style with a theatrical flavor, it was also a rather nationalistic style. The Ghezzis were a prominent artistic family in Ascoli Piceno, a prosperous town in the east of Italy that often—by supplying so many bold and efficient bureaucrats—seemed to be Edinburgh to the London of Baroque Rome. For all his well-assimilated citations of Cortona and Maratti, Giuseppe's paintings never let us forget that his father studied with Guercino; and there is always, in both father and son, the appeal to the natural and the romantic.The son's interests and obligations were far more varied than the father's. Pier Leone was first of all a painter. His prominence in this field was rewarded by a long reign (1708-1747) as court painter to the pope, a great sinecure but not a very creative one. The duties were those of a curator and conservator (of the papal painting collections and the tapestry and mosaic factories) and an interior decorator (for everything from temporary ceremonial decorations in the very large Roman basilican churches, to room decorations in the papal palaces, to decoration of papal coaches and coast guard boats). As a draughtsman Ghezzi was also a supplier of drawings to be engraved as decorations for religious texts. Deeply involved in antiquarian interests and close to the archaeologists of his day (he was considered an archaeologist himself), Ghezzi was a prominent draughtsman of the new discoveries. He specialized in engraved gems, but his numerous drawings show a very wide interest in and knowledge of all forms of ancient art, as well as of the paintings of Renaissance and more recent times. In paintings, like his father, he was an expert in two further senses: as a picture restorer and as a dealer-agent. Founding his artistic discipline firmly on ancient art, Ghezzi also continued the Renaissance interest in anatomical studies. And, as many Italian painters of his century and of the Renaissance, Ghezzi was exceptionally interested in music: the “musical academy” held in his house each Wednesday was one of the more important musical events of Rome.Among these many honors and interests, all of them presumably auxiliary to his painting career,2
Ghezzi moves as an agreeable and strong-minded man-about-town. He was one of the most obvious personalities in Rome, knowing everybody and welcome everywhere. He was particularly attached to the more liberal and advanced powers of the church and city and to the artists, musicians, and professionals for whom Rome was Mecca. To all of these he was a shred, ironic, but light-hearted social historian. For the largest production of Ghezzi is indeed his caricatures. Somehow, during six decades, Ghezzi found time to record in these strong and delightful drawings almost everybody obvious or eccentric enough to be noticed in Rome.Ghezzi's youthful caricatures from the first two decades of the century are the most playful and the least known. The signed sketch of Duke Beccadelli3
is brushed in with a florid violence that is meant to be as “primitive” and naive as possible. With his Punch and Judy face, his kind eye, and his gestures of futile dominion, the Duke has entered the hallucinatory absurdity of folk art. Status and rank in Rome have always been proud and grand but have always preferred the leaven of all gossip known and all warts worn. The Duke's slapstick likeness is part of a high moment of Roman comedy and pragmatism.The early brush caricatures were soon replaced by more carefully wrought pen caricatures. These are Ghezzi's most familiar and plentiful work and were known throughout Europe by the mid-1720s. Human communication and man's comic view of himself has never been the same since. The pen caricatures are not basically different in style, but they are more beautifully organized in what they show and how they work. An important example is the Institute's new caricature of the sculptor Maini.4
By 1740 the steady stream of Ghezzi's altarpieces in Rome (the latest probably being that of 1738 in S. Maria dell'Orazione e Morte) cease, and his lucrative decorative work for the pope winds down. From the last two decades of Ghezzi's life there are more, not less, caricatures, and his European fame as a caricaturist peaks. There are few datable paintings after 1740, and all known to me are easel pictures and portraits. As a public artist and as a painter it may be that Ghezzi had exhausted himself and his talent.It is unfair to Ghezzi, and an historical accident, only to remember the caricatures. The paintings are very good, and the recent attention to them is easy to justify. They do not change the history of style; they make no revolutionary advances. Always strongly conceived and executed, they are full of remarkable observation. The imagination is often ferocious but always simple, fresh, and opulent. The style changes little throughout: it is a more spontaneous form of his father's, always bolder and richer than Giuseppe, finally more severe. The independence and individuality of the father simply reach new heights in the son and, if other fashionable painters (Trevisani, Panini,5
Conca, J. F. de Troy) also stir Pier Leone, they do not distract him. The late altarpieces and portraits, though old-fashioned in their fervor and general impact, are new and exceptional in their plain strength and breadth and resemble such an individualist and revolutionary as Benefial more than anyone else. Benefial was both more suave and more savage than Ghezzi; he also carried things—for quite different reasons—to a dialectic that verged on caricature.Ancient pictorial graces and not caricature or severity dominate the Institute's Return of the Prodigal Son,6
which I would date to the 1720s. The composition is animated by the lively dancing and contrasting forms of the Baroque in its late, more delicate, but not less operatic, Italian Rococo style. The deep, rich colors, warm tonality, and busy forms are forcefully conceived, precisely arranged, and broadly brushed in. The result is rich and fresh, tough, but warm and gentle. The drama of the subject is poised in a very Italian way: it does not occur in the profound psychological subject (which is shown in almost frivolous manner) but in its relieving natural aftermath, in the glowing celebration of the event. The prodigal is back; the celebration of that return has begun; the natural world bursts in gladly upon the central reconciliation.The Ghezzis were among the founders of genre paintings in the 18th-century Italy. In the Institute painting we do not see noble Biblical figures but a pretty dog, a young heifer, and a lot of ordinary, if historically idealized, life. The young man kneeling behind the sacrificial heifer is almost certainly a portrait of Pier Leone's brother. This nearness of the intimate and daily can now also be shown at the Institute in its more developed form. A painting roughly contemporary to the Ghezzi oil, Madonna del Fuoco, Protectress of Forli
by Bolognese Aureliano Milani (1675-1749),7
is cooler and quieter than Ghezzi's, but its Bolognese antirhetorical tactics are devoted to the same new sense of the ordinary and lowly. The subject from the Old Testament, richer in costume and sentiment, gives way to the Christian street scene.Anthony M. Clark,
leading authority on Roman eighteenth-century painting, is Chairman of the Department of European paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A frequent contributor to many learned journals, he is at present preparing a general history of painting in Rome in the eighteenth century and a biography and scholarly catalogue on Pompeo Batoni.Endnotes
Referenced Works of Art
- The essential articles on the artist are Mattia Loret, “Pier Leone Ghezzi,” Capitolium XI (June, 1931), pp. 291-307; Anthony M. Clark, “Pierleone Ghezzi's Portraits,” Paragone, 165 (1963), pp. 11-21; and the useful article in Thieme Becker. Since 1963 the following important articles have appeared: Giovanni Incisa della Rocchetta, “I Disegni di Pier Leone Ghezzi nel Museo di Roma,” in Bolletino dei Musei Comunali di Roma, XI (1964) 1/4, pp. 13/18; Didier Bodart, “Disegni giovanile inediti di P. L. Ghezzi nella Biblioteca Vaticana,” Palatino XI, 2 (1967), pp. 141/154; Michel N. Benisovich, “Ghezzi and the French artists in Rome,” Apollo (May 1967), pp. 340/347; ed. Claudio M. Mancini, “Le Memorie del Cav. Leone Ghezzi. . .,” Palatino, 4 (1968), pp. 480/487; (Anthony M. Clark) “Pietro Leone Ghezzi,” in Painting in Italy in the Eighteenth Century: Rococo to Romanticism (Chicago, Minneapolis, Toledo, 1970), p. 194; L. Guerrini, Marmi antichi nei disegni di Pier Leone Ghezzi, Vatican City, 1971; Francesco Negri Arnoldi, “Il ritratto di Clemente XI di Pierleone Ghezzi. . .,” Paragone 239 (Jan. 1970), pp. 67/73.Since the author's 1963 article the following portraits (beside the crucial Clement XI published by Negri Arnoldi) have emerged: Faustina and Goldoni, Rhode Island School of Design; A Boy in a Blue Coat (signed), Los Angeles market; Boy wearing Order, London, J. F. McCrindle (from Casa Albani); Girl with Dog, Rome, Marchesa Misciatelli; small Portrait of a Man, M. & C. Sestieri, Rome; Suor Maria Eletta Corsini (d. 1736), F. Apolloni, Rome; Girl with Missal, Avv. Fabrizio Lemme, Rome (from Casa Altieri); Group Portrait, Prince Guido Odescalchi, Rome.
- A convenient glance at Ghezzi's chronology and career is given in my 1963 and 1970 publications.
- 69.53. The David M. Daniels Fund. Brush, brown ink, and wash on white paper, 15 3/16” x 9 1/4”. Inscribed: Ecc.mo Sig Duca Beccadelli P. L. Ghezzi. Illustrated as frontispiece, Thirty Caricature Drawings by. . . Ghezzi, Faeber and Miason Ltd., London (June 19-July 12th, 1969), cat. no. 7.
- 72.93. the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund. Pen and brown ink, 12 1/2” x 8 3/4”. Inscribed:(Sig).e Gio: Battista Maini scultore disegniato dà Me Cav. l Ghezzi 1749. il Med.o S.e Maini a fatto mol-/te opere, et in specie il ratratto di Papa Bened.o statua grande nella scala grande del Convento / dei padri Agostiniani in roma onde ordinatoglie dal p. Giovia Generale petuo (?) di d.a. Religione, et che/ (il) Med.o Generale fece fare tutto il Convento p. D.a Religione dal Fondamenti che e tutto un impresa / dà Monarco. il d.o Maini fece una Concettione p. il re di Portogallo et a operato nelli 3 Ca- /tini Basilica di S. Pietro in roma sopra li Disegni di Raffael d'urbino, fatti di stucco do-/ rati il no. d=9 tondi con la vita di S. Pietro, i quali qui farono pagati della fabrica di S. Pietro Z.750=che tutti à 3 li d.o Catini imposto ove stuccatori Bonattori (?)______ (?)______(?) alla/. . . . (a further line of the inscription is cut away).Formerly Seventh Duke of Wellington (p. 16 of Vol. I, Pt. I). G. B. Maini (1690-1752) was one of the best Roman Sculptors of the first half of the 18th century. Another caricature of Maini by Ghezzi (with a shorter inscription) is in the Vatican Library and is dated 1742.
- The relationships with Panini are important and need examination. Ghezzi's Vatican Library caricature of Panini is later (1745) and was done a decade after the climax, in the 1720s and 1730s, of Ghezzi's own landscape and architecture creations (frescoes, wall decorations, interior and exterior design: projects for temporary facades and festal machines; the large number of landscape drawings). While it is probable that this part of Ghezzi's career suffered from Panini's greater success, it is also probable that what seems to be Panini's influence upon Ghezzi (at villa Falconieri and in the North Carolina Lateran canvases) is Ghezzi's influence on Panini. Ghezzi and Panini worked together from the very beginning of Panini's career (e.g. at Palazzi Albani and Alberoni). None of Ghezzi's interior decorations (in Palazzo Alberoni, the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo, for the Albani Villa at Nettuno, at Torre di Pietra, or even those of Villa Falconieri at Frascati) have been seriously studied. It also may be that what is possibly Panini's first Roman commission, the unpublished gallery of Palazzo Albani—Del Drag in Rome, was due to Ghezzi, the household artist of the Albani who was working upon decorations for their palace at the time.
- 71.23 The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4” x 52 7/8”. From a Viennese private collection.
- 71.46. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Oil on canvas, 45” x 39 1/2”. Initialed on the small paper at lower right A. M. The Minneapolis painting is the modello for Milani's lateral painting to the fifth altar on the right of S. Marcello, Rome (painted about 1725. The large painting is illustrated as figure 107b in Arte Antica e Moderna, 27 , at p. 340.)
- Pier Leone Ghezzi. Italian, 1674-1755. Duke Beccadelli. Brush, brown ink, and wash on white paper, 15 3/16” x 9 1/4”. The David M. Daniels Fund, 69.53.
- Pier Leone Ghezzi. Italian, 1674-1755. G. B. Maini. Pen and brown ink, 12 1/2” x 8 3/4”. The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 72.93.
- Pier Leone Ghezzi. Italian, 1674-1755. Return of the Prodigal Son. Oil on canvas, 38 3/4” x 52 7/8”. The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, 71.23.
- Aureliano Milani. Italian, 1675-1749. Madonna del Fuoco, Protectress of Forli. Oil on canvas, 45” x 39 1/2”. The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 71.46.