standing figure of a man in the center of the composition holding a shovel and trowel; a pile of concrete with a mixing stick is at right rear, a broom lying on the ground in the left background, along with a container of concrete
The Museum’s works on paper collection contains many treasures, but two 18th-century drawings by the pre-eminent caricaturist of the period are particularly notable. Donated by Thomas Cassirer, husband of Sidonie Cassirer who taught German at the College for four decades, the drawings are by Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755), a native of Rome who spent most of his life in the Eternal City portraying members of the church Curia and the social elite. Ghezzi has been called the first professional caricaturist, and his graphic oeuvre consists of nearly 4,000 sheets dispersed among some of the world's greatest museums.
Ghezzi's caricatures are famous for their succinct characterizations drawn with a few firm strokes of the pen. They are often witty, but are never sarcastic or demeaning. Typically, the subjects are depicted in full-length poses amidst very spare settings. Ghezzi's overall artistic achievements did not go unrecognized during his lifetime: he was first appointed Secretary of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca, and then in 1708, named Pittore della Camera Apostolica under Pope Clement XI. Contemporary biographers like Leone Pascoli included Ghezzi among the most noteworthy artists of the day.
Mount Holyoke's two drawings—made just a day apart on May 26 and 27, 1707—portray individuals who are not from the leisure class. According to inscriptions on the two versos, the first represents Marco Ballarin, cook of Giovanni Leoni, and the second, a young mason known as Beretta who worked for a certain Mastro Carlo. Each is sympathetically drawn in their professional environments. Proud men both, they make eye contact with the viewer and convey a sense of dignity that goes well beyond their circumscribed station in life. The nobility of Ballarin's expression recalls Nicolas Poussin's famous Self-Portrait in the Louvre. Ghezzi's likeness—we may be surprised to learn—is the very first depiction of an identifiable cook.
Together, the two Ghezzi drawings remind us that not all was frivolity and make-believe in the world of the late Baroque and early Rococo. Depictions of everyday life were not a signature trait of the early 18th century, nor was Ghezzi moved by political motives to record the conditions of the working class--as later 19th--century artists like Courbet and Daumier would be. As impartial likenesses, these caricatures offer the viewer a glimpse of unofficial life in the margins of papal Rome.
-John Varriano, Professor Emeritus, Mount Holyoke College
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum Newsletter (Spring 2015)
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