Pier Leone Ghezzi was an artist to whom Tony Clark devoted serious attention. He was interested in all aspects of the artist’s oeuvre: his altarpieces, his portraits, his frescoes and of, course his ‘caricatures’. But Clark was frustrated that a 20th-century audience defined this artist merely as a producer of ‘caricatures’. In fact, Ghezzi was known in his own day as a fine musician, the godson of Carlo Maratti, a curator, an archeologist, and connoisseur of Roman antiquities as well as a member of the Accademia di San Luca and an accomplished painter in many genres. Ghezzi’s likenesses of just about anyone who was anyone in early 18th-century Rome were merely a record of life and the people, high and low, in contemporary Rome. They were not mean-spirited and had none of the bite of the slightly later caricatures of Zanotti and Tiepolo in Venice. Ghezzi’s portraits, almost always in the instantly recognizable pen and ink outlines with striated lines and sometimes a little wash, were more like rapidly executed, unidealized mementos than satirical caricatures.
This famous painting depicts the Neapolitan painter Paolo de Matteis (1662 – 1728) standing in front of his easel on which rests a depiction of ‘Fortuna’. De Matteis apparently had a high opinion of himself, and famously portrayed himself at his easel in 1715 presiding over the peaceful conclusion of the greatest event of the day, the War of the Spanish Succession (The Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, BF.1980.4). In 1723 De Matteis came to Rome, center of the civilized world, where he worked for Pope Innocent XIII and hoped to consolidate what was already a successful career. Rome turned out to be inhospitable, and De Matteis was lampooned there by Ghezzi who inscribed a caricature saying ‘Pavolo de Matteis an extemporaneous painter who came to Rome, cranked out many canvases, relieved many Roman nobles of their money and then, disgusted with Rome, returned to Naples on June 15, 1725.’ This pen and ink caricature dated June 30, 1725, and now in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Ott.lat.3115, p.111), shows De Matteis sitting at his easel painting an allegory wearing a painter’s gown and turban. He is clearly short of stature and looks like a monkey.
But in fact, De Matteis’ Neapolitan biographer, De Dominici, had described him rather as Ghezzi painted him: ‘Paolo’s stature was small, with minute limbs but a broad forehead…His physiognomy seemed a bit like a monkey’s, just as one sees in his most natural self-portrait that he painted as seated, wearing a housecoat’. So, perhaps Ghezzi’s seemingly unflattering likeness is actually accurate. Clearly Ghezzi was intrigued by his Neapolitan rival, for in October 1725 he made another caricature (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Ott. lat.3116, p.92) this time of the painter with the same simian features, but standing, pondering an empty canvas on his easel. It is now inscribed, more positively, ‘Paolo de Mattei, Neapolitan Painter, good master and also most erudite in designing fables and stories.’
The painting exhibited here depends on the second of the two drawn caricatures. Strangely, the inscription says that the painting was executed on March 8, 1726, by which time De Matteis was already back in Naples. Even odder is the fact that the picture, as recorded by Ghezzi in his memoirs, was commissioned in 1732 from the Perugian abbot and artists’ biographer, Leone Pascoli (1674 – 1744). Ghezzi writes on November 16, 1732, ‘I have finished the caricature of Paolo de Matteis who is painting Fortune standing on a wheel in the act of crowning a Donkey and next to said Donkey there is a beautiful Horse. This is to signify that Fortune always protects the ignorant, something one notices in our time.’
From Pascoli, the biographer of Pier Leone Ghezzi’s father and many other late Baroque Roman artists, this remarkable painting, the only painted caricature in Ghezzi’s oeuvre, passed unrecorded for two centuries until it was acquired by the Ghezzi’s most sympathetic 20th-century admirer, Anthony Clark.❖