Treasures from the Vault: Guerrino Guardabassi

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Our last bearded visage is the work of 19th century Italian artist Guerrino Guardabassi, whose subjects range from interactions between peasants and their domestic affairs to society portraits. Guardabassi’s traditional paintings and watercolors are indicative of the Italian School he was trained in; he worked in both Rome and Paris. Here, we have a pastoral peasant scene, an interaction between our bearded fellow and a young boy meeting on a mountain road.

Guerrino Guardabassi, Italian, 1841-1893. Friar and Peasant Boy. Oil, late 19th century. Gift of Theodore F. Thieme, 1922.11. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Looking first to the bearded man, his drab brown robes point to a religious vocation. As monks are confined to their monastery, this man is likely a friar. A member of a community of men like a monk, friars were permitted to leave the confinement of their cloister and preach, solicit alms, and visit their flock. The rough cord around his waist, in place of a belt, and lack of adornment is characteristic of both friars and monks. Although the green grass suggests spring or summer, both the friar and the boy are wearing layers. We can see the sleeves of the brown robe peeking beneath his hooded cape, which is drawn over his head as if to ward off a wind. His sandaled feet leave his toes exposed to the elements, and the basket under his arm appears to be empty while the folds at the bottom of the white linen thrown over his back look heavy with goods. He also holds a cane or walking stick in his hand, another indication that he is a traveler and thus a friar, not a monk. His white face and hair suggest an older man, as does the use of a cane. The mountain road, however, is not paved and the cane may be an aid in traversing rough terrain. In place of a supplicant, he stands merely looking at the boy in front of him, who looks not back at him but out to the viewer. Who is this boy?

Guardabassi’s work includes various paintings of a young flutist, many of them with similar hair and dress to the boy painted here, though varying in age. Here, he holds his flute in both hands against his chest, perhaps readying himself to play for the friar? Dressed in layers, he also has no shoes, instead wrapping his feet with strips of linen. His breeches are short, but that could be attributed to the style of the day, not to him having outgrown them, though both could be a factor. They are torn at the bottom, and his white surcoat is dusty and dirtied. His eyes are much bigger than his other features, giving him a waif-like appearance. Looking at Guardabassi’s other works that include children, they are much less whey-faced and disproportioned. Was this an early work? Or, perhaps, did an apprentice painter finish the child’s face? The friar painted here is also in many other works of Guardabassi. In one, he is actively seeking alms (a sure clue he is a friar and not a monk) from a woman passing by. In another, he has an encounter on the Appian Way, one of the oldest Roman roads that connected Rome to southeast Italy. Which raises the question, did the artist know this boy and friar well and ask them to pose, multiple times? Were they fixtures in the community or area? Or, did he chance upon them once and then re-use their features over again? At this time, most artists worked out of a studio and wouldn’t have painted outside, making it less likely that he happened upon them and asked them to pose for him. Did he, instead, have a “cast of characters” who modeled for him? Artists used models to render the human form correctly, so it could be that the boy and man who modeled for these works look nothing like their painted counterparts, who came to life straight from the mind of the artist.

Behind them, the mountains of Italy are visible against the cloudy sky. They appear to be on high ground, standing on a dirt-trod trail. Could they be coming and going from a village, meeting in-between their respective journeys? Like other paintings, are they on the Appian Way? The details on the individuals are mirrored in the details of the landscape, you can see the pitting, dirt, and rocks on the road. Would you classify this as a landscape or a portrait? Either way, our bearded friar provides insight into the community Guardabassi lived in, as he portrayed the interactions of normal people going about their day.

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