Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1804) Capriccio view of the Colosseum, Rome, with pilgrims gathering before altars sheet size:575 x965mm; image size:498 x894mm
Lot 37*
Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1804) Capriccio view of the Colosseum, Rome, with pilgrims gathering before altars sheet size:575 x965mm; image size:498 x894mm
Sold for £26,290 (US$ 35,670) inc. premium

Lot Details
Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1804)
Capriccio view of the Colosseum, Rome, with pilgrims gathering before altars
watercolour with pen and brown ink, within double fictive framing lines in black ink; framed
sheet size:575 x965mm; image size:498 x894mm


  • Louis-Jean Desprez arrived in Rome in the summer of 1777. He was thirty-three years of age and had just won the prestigious Prix de Rome. Trained in Paris as a draughtsman and engraver by Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), and as an architect by Jacques-Francois Blondel (1705-1774), Desprez had left Paris as a highly trained and experienced artist. Shortly after his arrival in Rome, he was commissioned by the abbe de Saint-Non (1727-1791) to collaborate on the illustrations for his Voyage pittoresque ou Description des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile (1781-1786). This set the timing for an intense programme of work, overviewed and authorised from Paris by the comte d’Angiviller (1730-1809), the last Directeur des Batiments du roi. With regular sendings of his work as an ‘eleve’ in Rome to the Academie royale in Paris graciously suspended for a year, Desprez accompanied Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825) and a group of other artists including Claude-Louis Chatelet (1753-1794) to the South of Italy. The drawings he executed from the architectural and urban sites of the region were engraved to illustrate Saint-Non’s Voyage pittoresque... in 130 plates. Desprez returned to Rome with fine topographical skills, which he was able to use to great effect in the views of the city he began to sketch and draw. Around September 1781, Desprez association began with Francesco Piranesi (1758-1810), son of Giovanni Battista. Together, they worked on a series of engravings depicting views of Rome and Naples.

    Although the motif and date correspond to Desprez's Roman sojourn, there has been no evidence to link the present drawing to these engravings although the motif and date correspond to Desprez’s Roman sojourn. Two other views of the Roman Coliseum by Desprez are in public collections. One is conserved in the Gothenburg Museum, Sweden, the other in the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris (see N.G. Wollin, Desprez en Italie, Malmo, 1935, figs. 204 and 205). The three drawings show Desprez recording the Flavian amphitheatre in the religious role it acquired shortly after 1749, when Pope Benedict XIV forbade the use of the monument as a quarry and consecrated it to the Passion of Christ. The Pope declared the Coliseum sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who perished inside, and altars were placed around to mark the Stations of the Cross. A large Cross was placed in the centre of the open arena. In the present drawing, Desprez displays with great minutiae the elaborate spectacle of a religious procession within the walls of the converted monument. More than in the two related drawings, the present sheet is crowded with a dense population of Christians, gathered to attend the ceremonial acts of a religious festivity. Desprez carefully reverts to the imposing solemnity of the ruined arcaded walls to construct a monumental backdrop allowing the tiny figures to circulate in swarming numbers. This dramatic device owes something to the graphic work of Stefano della Bella (1610-1664) and Jacques Callot (1592-1635), but above all, it recalls the compositional 'tours de force' of Piranesi's Antichita Romane e Caprici. In 1784, Desprez terminated his scholarship contract with the French Academy to enter the service of King Gustav III of Sweden. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life as a Frenchman in Stockholm. In Paris, d’Angiviller could only console himself for the loss of a great talent with the fact that the King of Sweden had chosen a French artist.
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