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Pier Leone Ghezzi

Italian, 1674 - 1755

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Pier Leone Ghezzi was born to Giuseppe Ghezzi and Lucia Laraschi on June 28, 1674. His father, Giuseppe, originally from the Marche, was also a painter and gave his son his first lessons in preparation for an academic, scholarly lifestyle, particularly in drawing, according to the precise biographies by Moücke and Pascoli (see Pascoli 1992, pp. 651-63). To reinforce his son's chances of a brilliant career, Giuseppe chose an exceptional baptismal godfather for him, Carlo Maratti, then at the height of his fame (see De Marchi 1999, pp. 190-92). His first known work is the Landscape with Saint Francis, signed and dated on the back 1698, now in the Pinacoteca Civica in Montefortino, near Ascoli Piceno. In 1702 he painted the first of his four self-portraits, (all except the last, from 1747, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This graceful, playful little work is furnished with a long inscription in verse, in the artist's hand, on the back of the canvas, perfectly indicative of the witty, perceptive spirit which is the constant characteristic of Ghezzi's personality:
Pier Leone am I/ Of the house of Ghezzi who, on the day 28 June/ When to one thousand six hundred/ Years seventy four more/ were added I was born and added/ To these is my age of twenty eight years/Now that in seventeen hundred and two/ Time shows himself to me, with his measure/now while he flies and never stops/ I laugh in his face and redeem myself/by giving perpetual life to my portrait.

In 1705, a little over the age of thirty, Ghezzi was admitted to the Accademia di S. Luca. As his reception piece he did a painting featuring the Allegory of Gratitude, still in the Accademia and inspired by his father's style, which was indebted to Maratti. On the heels of this came other important official recognitions: his appointment as Pittore della Camera Apostolica in 1708, with the right to succeed Giuseppe Passeri, who died in 1713; the title of knight inherited from his father and his grandfather Sebastiano, also an artist, on whom it had been conferred by the King of Portugal; and the cross of knighthood conferred on him by the Duke of Parma in 1710. In 1743, with the death of Pietro Paolo Cristofari, these honours were followed by his appointment as superintendent of the mosaic factory attached to St. Peter's (Cipriani M. 1999, pp. 190-92). Soon after 1710, and now well established in the academic world of figurative art, the artist took part in the great public commissions ordered by Pope Clement XI Albani, who had a real affection for Ghezzi. In 1712 he was commissioned to paint The Election of Saint Fabian for the Albani Chapel in the church of S. Sebastiano fuori le Mura, designed by Carlo Fontana for Clement. The artist's language still appears late Baroque, perhaps to adapt to the other great altarpiece in the chapel, painted by Giuseppe Passeri, depicting The Communion of Emperor Philip the Arab.

In 1715 Ghezzi took part in one of the most important commissions of all the Albani pope's reign, the frescoing of the nave of the ancient basilica of S. Clemente, in which all the most famous artists of the time participated: Giuseppe and Tommaso Chiari, Giovanni Odazzi, Giacomo Triga, Antonio Grecolini, Pietro de'Pietri, Giovanni Domenico Piastrini, Sebastiano Conca, and Pietron Rasina, representatives of each of the various figurative styles current in Rome. Ghezzi produced a famous work, The Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, for which there exists a preparatory sketch on canvas, formerly in the Lemme collection, but donated by Lemme himself in 1997 to the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica in the Palazzo Barberini. Soon afterward, in 1718, the artist was once more active in a great papal enterprise, the decoration of the nave of St. John Lateran for which he painted The Prophet Micah, one of twelve ovals entrusted to the leading Roman artist. Also commissioned by Albani was one of the most significant paintings of this period, The Miracle of Saint Andrea Avellino (private collection, Rome), solemn in its composition and narrative and rich in detail.

The artist also devoted himself to portraiture around this time, with a series of examples striking in their unusual and immediate rendering of the sitters. The most important of these are the portrait of Clement XI (Museo di Roma, Rome), the portrait of Carlo Albani (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), the portrait of Annibale Albani (private collection, Milan), the portrait of Gabriele Filipucci (Pinacoteca Comunale, Macerata), and the portrait of Benedetto Falconcini (Worcester Art Museum). The unusually informal and realistic tone of these paintings derives from the practice of caricature to which Ghezzi had been devoted from childhood. His works in the latter genre form a vast body of work amounting to thousands of examples, held in collections all over the world. The most numerous and famous collection however, is that of the Vatican Library, to which the artist himself gave the title Mondo nuovo; it comprises eight volumes of the Codici Ottoboniani latini, from 3112 to 3119, each containing between a hundred and thirty and two hundred caricatures arranged and bound by Ghezzi himself. The artist may be regarded as the real founder of this genre, now practiced professionally and bought by admirers all over Europe.

After the deaths of both his father and the pope in 1721, the artist seems to have distanced himself progressively from academic principles in favour of a freer style of painting, descriptive but illusionistic, in which the celebratory intention combines with the narrative style. The most obvious example is the great Lateran Council, painted for the 1725 jubilee (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh), which clearly suggests the influence of Panini, as can be seen by a comparison with the Views from the Castle of Rivoli (Castello di Racconigi and Museo Civico di Arte Antica, Turin). Further examples of his style in these years are the two famous scenes of The Miraculous Intercession of Saint Philip Neri for Vincenzo Maria Orsini, the future Pope Benedict XIII, one in the Stanze of S. Filippo in S. Maria in Vallicella, the other at Matelica in the Marches, in the church of S. Filippo. From the same period date Ghezzi's frescoes for Alessandro Falconieri in his summer residences at Torrimpietra and Frascati, near Rome. In the first case the paintings cover the entire reception room of the castle and continue in several adjacent rooms. They celebrate Falconieri's appointment as a cardinal in 1724 with scenes on the theme of The Visit of Pope Benedict XIII and His Retinue to the Estate in a series of unusual group portraits immortalizing the pope and the prelates of his court, shown against a landscape background that suggests the surrounding countryside. Soon afterwards, in 1727, the artist produced his famous Conversation Scenes in the villa at Frascati, in which appear the members of the patron's family in fashionable dress, full-length and life-size, along with Ghezzi himself in a self-portrait, signed and dated, shown facing the spectator, to celebrate himself and his work. This sort of plein air portraiture ante litteram, is strongly reminiscent of the illusionistic style of Panini, with whom Ghezzi worked subsequently on the celebrations organized in 1729 by Melchior de Polignac in honour of the birth of the French dauphin, for which Ghezzi devised the firework display (see Art in Rome, cat. 264). He was at that time also busy on various other projects, as his biographers have pointed out: "Not to painting alone is his expertise restricted; for he turns wood, and engraves on copper, and in semi-precious stones. He has studied medicine, anatomy…Understands also architecture and has fully proved himself in various operations and singularly in that of the superb firework display" (Pascoli 1730-36, vol. 2, p. 206). Again for Melchior de Polignac, he did the drawings after the antique of one of the most important recently discovered monuments, The Burial Chambers of Liberti and Liberte di Livia Augusta, published in one volume in 1731. This is also the date of the great paintings for the church of S. Salvatore in Lauro, which belonged to the Marchigian community in Rome: Saints Joachim, Anna, and Joseph and Saint Emidio and Other Marchigian Saints (the latter now moved to the sacristy), both recorded in the Memorie del Cavalier Ghezzi scritte da se medesimo da gennaro 1731 a luglio 1734.

From 1730-35 on Ghezzi was less active and allowed himself to concentrate on his many side interests. His final painting for a Roman church, The Investiture of Saint Giuliana Falconieri, is signed and dated 1737, and was done for the church of S. Maria dell'Orazione e Morte on a commission from the Falconieri family (Art in Rome, cat. 222); the last known painting on a religious subject, The Holy Family (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes), is signed and dated 1741, and shows new artistic interests. The work reveals the powerful influence of the art of Pierre Subleyras, from which his Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus (1741; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse) is clearly derived. He continued to produce portraits, but less prolifically than in his youth. Dating from 1732 are his portrait of the sculptor Edme Bouchardon (Uffizi, Florence) and the portrait of Paolo de Matteis (private collection, Rome), almost a caricature in paint. Slightly later are his Portrait of a Woman (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes), the Portrait of a Man (private collection, Milan), and his self-portrait of 1747, produced for the Accademia di S. Luca, where it remains. Also in 1747 Ghezzi decorated the gallery in the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo with rural landscapes, commissioned by the steward of Pope Benedict XIV, as the documents record (Vatican City, Archivio Segreto Vaticano, S.P.A., Computisteria, vol. 269, cited in Lo Bianco 1985, pp. 85-88). This was the last big undertaking competed by the artist, who died at the height of his fame on March 6, 1755, and was buried in the family tomb in S. Salvatore in Lauro. His wife, Caterina Peroni, whom he had married at a late age, in 1736, followed him in 1762. The inventory of the Ghezzi family possessions revealed a rich collection of paintings, drawings, and books (Corradini 1990).

Anna Lo Bianco, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), pp. 368-369.

Pascoli, Lione [1674 - 1744]. Vite de'pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni. 1730-36; Perugia, Italy: Electa, 1992;
De Marchi, Giulia, ed. Sebastiano e Giuseppe Ghezzi: protagonisti del barocco. Venice: Marsilio, 1999;
Cipriani, Marina, ed. "Cronologica." In Lo Bianco, Anna, ed. Pier Leone Ghezzi: Settecento alla moda. Venice: Marsilio, 1999, pp. 190-92;
Pascoli, Lione. Vite de'pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni scritte, ed dedicate alla Maestà di Vittorio Amadeo Re di Sardegna da Lione Pascoli. 2 vols. Rome: Antonio de'Rossi, 1730-36. Vol. 2, p. 206. In Lo Bianco, Anna. Pier Leone Ghezzi pittore. Palermo, Italy, and São Paulo, Brazil: Italo-Latino-Americana Palma, 1985;
Corradini, Sandro, ed. "Testamento e quadreria di Caterina Peroni Ghezzi, consorte di Pier Leone Ghezzi." In Martinelli, Valentino, ed. Giuseppe e Pier Leone Ghezzi. Rome: Palombi, 1990, pp. 111-31.

Lo Bianco, Anna, ed. Pier Leone Ghezzi: Settecento alla moda. Venice: Marsilio, 1999.

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