Pier Leone Ghezzi, son of the Marchigian painter Giuseppe Ghezzi (1634–1721), is today best known as a father of the art of caricature. In fact, he was a highly successful painter of portraits, altarpieces and frescoes as well as a designer of ephemeral celebrations. Nevertheless, it is for the hundreds of caricatures he drew in pen and ink of high-ranking prelates, Roman patricians, Grand Tourists, as well as laborers and working people, that he is now best known. These drawings, while intended to amuse, are never meanspirited in the way popularized by later satirists such as Thomas Rowlandson (1757–1827).
Many of his drawings were assembled as, or pasted into, albums such as one from the Duke of Wellington’s collection, now in the Morgan Library, New York (1978.27), and in the Ottoboniani Codices in the Biblioteca Vaticana. Our sheets come from what is known as the ‘Polignac album’, a series of caricatures of members of the entourage of Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (1661–1742) who was Chargé d’Affaires to the Holy See and French Ambassador to the Vatican between 1725 and 1732. These drawings were historically preserved in a folder entitled ‘GHEZZI / AMBASSADE DU CARDINAL / DE POLIGNAC / DESSINS ORIGINAUX’. They represented Abbé Conti, Abbé Le Cocq, Monsieur du Tilloy, Monsieur Le Vieux, Pierre-Herman Dosquet and Monsieur Pramirail. They can be dated to ca. 1725–30.
Another caricature by Ghezzi of the Polignac circle was sold at Sotheby’s in London in 1979 which portrays the Cardinal seen from behind talking to a Jesuit, Father Agliata, while Ghezzi himself looks on.
Like Ghezzi, Cardinal de Polignac was intensely interested in the classical world and sponsored archeological excavations on the Via Appia. Pier Leone Ghezzi produced a series of antiquarian drawings now scattered among various libraries, among them the Biblioteca Apostolica and the British Museum. Their interests were conjoined with the publication in 1731 of the Camere Sepolcrali de liberti e liberte di Livia Augusta ed altri Cesari, a record, illustrated by Ghezzi, of archeological discoveries made following digs sponsored by Polignac.
Ghezzi had a further connection to Cardinal Polignac who commissioned the artist to produce the ephemeral apparatus with the famous ‘fire machine’ which he had erected in the courtyard of the Palazzo Altemps—the ambassador’s residence at the time—and on Piazza Navona to mark the wedding of King Louis XV of France in 1725, and again to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin in 1729. The latter festivity was immortalized by Giovanni Paolo Panini in a magnificent depiction of the event (National Gallery of Ireland, NGI. 95), dated 1731 and commissioned by Cardinal Polignac.
The caricature as an art form has its origins in drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. His grotesque drawings were widely copied by Milanese and Northern artists. In the late cinquecento Annibale Carracci and Guercino independently produced what we would call caricatures, a term invented by Filippo Baldinucci in 1681 who describes them as ‘increasing the load (‘carico’ in Italian)…a manner of portraying a sitter in as true a fashion as possible to the sitter’s true features, yet in jest or even in scorn they add or exaggerate the sitter’s flaws, imitating them out of all proportion, in such a wise that the sitter looks like himself in the picture as a whole, but is changed in his individual parts’. At around the same time as Ghezzi’s famous satirical drawings were being made, Giambattista Tiepolo and Count Antonio Zanetti (1680–1767) were making similar drawings in Venice.
Anthony Clark was personally interested in the genre. He designed a table etched with Ghezzian caricatures and his notebooks are filled with caricatural scribbles. He owned a caricature of Pompeo Batoni by Giuseppe Cades as well as a rare painted caricature of Paolo de Matteis by Ghezzi (see cat. 4).
We are grateful to Prof. Francesco Leone for his assistance in the cataloguing of this entry.❖