GIACOMO CERUTI: A COMPASSIONATE EYE

[This was a column I wrote for Angelus News, unaware that another writer, the classics professor Stefano Rebeggiani, had already been assigned to the exhibit. His piece is brilliant. Here’s my humble offering].

Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767) was an Italian, late Baroque painter known for his “genre paintings.” 

In the essay “Comedy, Reality, and the Development of Genre Painting in Italy,” critic Mira Pajes Merriman described Ceruti’s subjects as:

“the detritus of the community; the displaced and homeless poor; the old and the young with their ubiquitous spindles, eloquent signs of their situationless poverty and unwanted labour; orphans in their orderly, joyless asylums plying their unpaid toil; urchins of the streets eking out small coins as porters, and sating them in gambling; the diseased, palsied, and deformed; lonely vagabonds; even a stranger from Africa—and all in tatters and filthy rags, almost all with eyes that address us directly.”

If you’re intrigued, the Getty is currently featuring an exhibit called “Giacomo Ceruti: A Compassionate Eye.”

True to form, Ceruti’s subjects here are seamstresses, beggars, and the elderly.

In Women Working on Pillow Lace (The Sewing School) (about 1720-1725), six young sewers are dressed similarly but not identically. Each has expressed herself individually: a loose tendril of hair, a knotted scarf. The rich colors of their dresses—ocher, vermilion, dove gray—add gravity and dignity.

Sewing is serious, painstaking business. The women are earnest and absorbed. Two gaze directly at the viewer; four bow to their work. The background is dark, shrouded in shadow, as if to mirror the women’s’ secret thoughts and inner lives.

A girl of about six with an open, old-soul face, also gazes directly at the viewer, unafraid and unashamed, as are her mentors, to embark on her life’s work.

Cobblers (about 1725-1730) features three raffish men at their lasts. All are in rags. One, in a kind of yellow fez, looks hungover. Another, cap askew, assiduously works. A third gazes frankly at the viewer, as if to say, “This is our life. This is our lot—what of it?”

Two Beggars (Encounter in the Wood) (about 1730-1734), depicts a mischievous—or perhaps sinister—old man and an old woman, face turned away from the viewer. He holds a staff; her hands are demurely folded. Are they trading gossip? About to embark on an assignation? Whatever the case, one senses that they’ve known each other for years and have met in the woods before.

As LA Times critic Christopher Knight observes: “The people are rendered with authority and precision of a kind usually reserved for portraiture.”

“The result is disarming. Perhaps because we are now so used to seeing photographs that are informal snapshots of people whom we recognize doing ordinary things, suddenly to encounter paintings from the 1720s and 1730s that have an atypical but similar bearing makes them strangely beguiling.”

It couldn’t have been any easier in Ceruti’s time to “see” poorly-paid young workers, the homeless, or the marginalized elderly than it is today. It is never easy to acknowledge that we all contribute to and are in some way responsible for the suffering of the world.

The genius of Ceruti’s portraits is that he refrains from massing “the poor” into one faceless bloc of misery. His subjects are not totally beaten down. They retain their individuality.

Each in some way carries the light of life.

And the affection, tenderness, and attention to detail that Ceruti lavished upon his subjects does help us see the world with a more compassionate eye.

That seamstress could be one of the young East Asian immigrants working in a downtown LA sweatshop.

The young man begging alms, clutching a kitten, could be the guy you saw on the sidewalk yesterday in front of the Bronson Canyon Gelson’s. 

I spent an hour studying Ceruti’s portraits online one morning in the Irish village where I spent the summer. Walking the Bog Road that afternoon, I fell into step with an older woman named Teresa, out with her two dogs. I could have been wrong, but she didn’t look especially rich, nor sound especially highly-educated.

She told of hosting her niece who’s on the sleep apnea machine which sounds like a lawnmower and a nephew, developmentally challenged, who wanted to name one of the dogs Jesus.

“Good Lord, no! I told him. We’ll be in the park calling to him and people will think we’re swearin’!”

She acknowledged everyone we passed with a greeting: the 10-year-old sitting cross-legged by the river scrolling through her phone—“Isn’t she clever, now”; the two teenaged boys fishing off the pier who responded with wide, friendly grins; the existentially tormented 20-year-old walking his Cocker spaniel. “That’s Luna,” she reported, and tossed the dog a biscuit.

After we parted ways I reflected that Teresa, whatever her socioeconomic status,  keeps out an eye, shores up, welcomes, notices. She fulfills a valuable, no doubt largely unheralded role in the community—just as seamstresses and chess players in the park and those who beg alms do.

“People whom we recognize doing ordinary things.”

6 Replies to “GIACOMO CERUTI: A COMPASSIONATE EYE”

  1. Another beautiful detail in that painting is the young girl reading, probably out loud to the others who most likely don’t know how to read. I didn’t know about Ceruti, so thanks for bringing him to our attention. He deserves to be better known. Cudos to the Getty.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Right–

  2. Love! …….”They retain their individuality”, dear Heather! The nobility of being poor! The respect Giacomo Ceruti invests in his Subjects, is “Divine”!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      I wasn’t able to see the exhibit myself but even the reproduced paintings are simply wonderful…thanks, Glenda.

  3. I have such a mother myself; a seamstress-while hunched over one day, sewing my homemade knee bands; I was in complete awe of her dedication & service, to helping relieve my knee pain. I will forever be grateful for my mother’s ordinary help.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Yes! God bless your mother! And many who are first shall be last, and the last first…I still have a yellow and white litttle gingham dress with ruffles around the sleeve that my mother sewed for me when I was four or five…I hope to be buried with it.

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