Pier Leone Ghezzi worked as a painter in Rome during the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily creating works commissioned by Pope Clement XI. While these religious images—which included a series of paintings commemorating the Pope—afforded him social prominence, it is his caricatures which have made a lasting mark on the history of art. Known as one of the first professional caricaturists, he frequently depicted both tourists and Roman locals of various social strata in humorous, single-figure drawings. These images tended to showcase an individual’s personal characteristics in an exaggerated form, sometimes including professional attributes (as in this case), or highlighting eccentricities. Nearly a thousand such works survive, offering a glimpse into the social history of 18th-century Rome that is at times both enlightening and amusing.
This caricature of the cook Marco Ballarin stands apart from many of Ghezzi’s other caricatures in that it does not present a humorous or mocking depiction of the individual, but rather a very matter-of-fact representation. The care and precision Ghezzi devoted to this drawing puts the work on a par with that of true portraits. However, unlike many portraits made at this time, the figure is not idealized. Such a dignified depiction would normally have been reserved for a person of higher social prominence rather than a household staff member. It does, however, embody the ideals and sensibility of the 18th century, which saw man as an inherently benevolent and sympathetic being, able to feel compassion for and see beauty within the most common of creatures. It is also an example of how art was beginning to move away from religious subject matter toward more secular imagery, and how drawing was starting to make a complete break from painting.