Infinite Jest — Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine is  one of the exhibitions currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of the most important museums in the world is hosting an exhibit on humor as an essential part of human nature. And humor in art is rarely given much attention.

Moreover, one of the focuses chosen by the curators is that until the eighteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci was the figure most closely associated with caricature, although it remains a question whether his drawings were intended as such.


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Leonardo da Vinci | Five caricature heads - Infinite Jest


I went to the exhibit with an Italian friend and many people astonished to see drawings of da Vinci on the walls (actually the first piece you can see in the first room is a physiognomic study of Leonardo!). I wasn’t surprised at all! Okay, it’s true I’m not the most suitable person to ask since I studied art and am very active in the field, but I asked my friend and he agreed with me. Nothing strange about the fact that Italy could be considered the native land of caricature. That’s how we are: passionate, grotesque, excessive people who love to fool with social norms and poke fun at the way people look.


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Italian icon actor Antonio De Curtis aka TOTO'

The other matter, the more technical one, is related to the origin of the term. Caricature is taken from the Italian carico and caricare, “to load” and “to exaggerate” by distorting a person’s physical characteristics. What more? We are the native land of people who made the caricature a way of life. Just think about Totò (Antonio De Curtis), the famous Italian comedian. He could do anything by distorting his facial expressions; he could show any feeling and make you laugh just by watching him!


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Infinite Jest - Giorgio Forattini | American Nursery

Additionally, think about the international fame and the troubled history of the illustrations made by Giorgio Forattini. His first political satire cartoons appeared in the magazine Panorama in 1973 and during his long career he has been awarded many prizes and acknowledgments, but also “punished” with libel actions. His satirical genius stretched across the board, not sparing anyone from the ‘untouchable’ Italian left (he’s one of the few in Italy to have satirized the left), the Church and to many once-powerful politicians. One of his most famous illustrations was published in 2008 for the election of Barack Obama.  It shows a man (Bush) bringing a woman flowers while she lies in a hospital bed with their newborn child. The wife is Lady Liberty while the infant is Barack Obama. “You disgrace!” says the man. “You cheated on me with the black butler.”


And what is that, if not a typical Italian way of facing life? I mean, we are the ancestors of the Carnival (Carnevale). We started to celebrate it, wearing costumes and grotesque masks in 1268! Italy is the native land of the commedia dell’arte, a form of theatre characterized by masked “types” and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. I truly believe that the spirit of Arlecchino has a lot in common with the art of caricature.

Both have a strong bodily energy and the will to say something improper and inconvenient, but in a funny way. This is how Italians are: we tend to take things (especially the serious ones) in a comic way, but we certainly judge them. We all do that. I don’t’ know anyone that doesn’t mock his colleague, his neighbor or the mayor of his city for the way he speaks/eats/parks the car/walks etc.


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Enrico Caruso | Italian, 1873-1921 Lady with Hat, Southampton, 1920

It’s the same thing that Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous sculptor, used to do by drawing caricatures of the courtiers, the pope and the bishops of Rome. The same that the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, a skilled amateur caricaturist, used to do as a release of his personal stressful life: he made satirical portraits of friends, associates and people he met during his concerts that he regularly sent to La Follia (“The Madness”), a New York based Italian-language newspaper.


Even if I mentioned the names of famous people, great artists, actors and musicians, you don’t have to think that they are an exception. I mean, of course they are, I’m not saying that Italians are all skilled as they are/were. Just, the spirit is the same, that’s what we all have in common.


I came out from the MET very satisfied, I enjoyed the exhibit very much.

“Did you like it too?”

“Yes, it was fun. Except for the old woman who always stood up in front of me and never let me see…”

“You mean the fat one with the big blond hair? She was the worst! She even stepped on my foot!”

“With her big tennis shoes? Well it could have been worst: what if it was the French girl with the high hells?”

“Oh my God, did you see her?? She looks like Olive from Popeye! So skinny, with the long black skirt…”