Pier Leone GHEZZI

Rome 1674 - Rome 1755


'During the first half of the eighteenth century there was no more remarkable or engaging artistic personality in Rome than Pier Leone Ghezzi. His accomplishments as a painter and his manifold activities in the artistic society of Rome have today been overshadowed by his fame as the first "professional" caricaturist.' This apt description of Pier Leone Ghezzi sums up one of the most fascinating characters of 18th century Rome. A pupil of his father, Giuseppe Ghezzi, at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, Ghezzi was from an early age encouraged to develop his skills as a draughtsman. His earliest known painting, a Landscape with Saint Francis, is dated 1698. In 1705 Ghezzi was admitted to the Accademia di San Luca, and four years later was appointed a Painter of the Apostolic Chamber, eventually succeeding Giuseppe Passeri on the latter's death in 1714.

Ghezzi was also named a Knight of the Order of Christ by Pope Clement XI, who was to be one of his most loyal and supportive patrons. Ghezzi worked on some of the major artistic projects of the long papacy of Clement XI, including painting an altarpiece for the pope's family chapel in the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura in 1712, contributing to the extensive fresco decoration of the nave of San Clemente in 1715 and completing a painting for St. John Lateran in 1718. Ghezzi was also put in charge of the papal painting collections, as well as the mosaic and tapestry factories. Among his other important patrons in Rome was Cardinal Alessandro Falconieri, who in the 1720s commissioned from him frescoes for the Villa Falconieri at Frascati and at another villa in Torre in Pietra. Ghezzi also produced paintings for churches in Rome and elsewhere throughout the 1720s and 1730s, as well as numerous portraits, and a series of landscapes painted in 1747 for the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo. He was also active as an engraver, antiquarian and art restorer, and was an accomplished musician. Towards the very end of his life, however, he seems to have devoted himself mainly to the production of caricature drawings.

As a draughtsman, Ghezzi is best known for his pen and ink caricatures of various members of Roman society, of which some three thousand examples have survived, and which together create a vivid picture of life in Rome in the 18th century. As Edgar Peters Bowron has noted, 'Ghezzi's caricatures and gently satirical portraits offer an engaging impression of eighteenth-century Roman life: his work comprises the richest iconographic source of this period. He recorded the activities of the common people as well as those in the upper strata of society, and had a keen eye for the queer and amusing events of everyday life.' While the practice of making caricature drawings is one that Ghezzi may not be said to have invented, he was certainly the first artist to establish a reputation in this field, so much so that he was known as 'il famoso cavaliere di caricature'. His earliest humourous drawings date from around 1700, and he continued to produce these works for the remainder of his career, selling them to collectors all over Europe.

Many of these caricature drawings were bound into albums, of which the most significant group is a series of eight volumes - entitled by the artist 'Il Mondo Nuovo' and divided into different categories by subject or profession - in the collection of the Vatican Library. Other albums of caricature drawings by Ghezzi are today in the British Museum, the Kupferstichkabinetts of Berlin and Dresden, the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, while other albums have been disbound and their contents sold individually on the art market.