Clérisseau's Basilica: Our drawing of the week

In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2013, for one morning per week, you can see a print or drawing from our collection in the intimate setting of our Print Study Room. Next up is Charles-Louis Clérisseau’s Basilica of Maxentius‘. 

Camilla Pietrabissa, PhD student at The Courtauld Institute of Art, explains why she chose this drawing and what it means to her. You can see the drawing for yourself on Monday 2 December, 10:30 – 1:30.

Clerisseau Basilica small

Charles-Louis Clérisseau, Basilica of Maxentius

The small drawing I selected comes from the collection of architectural studies formed by Professor Anthony Blunt.

It is one of three works by Charles-Louis Clérisseau reunited at the Courtauld (the others being Palace of Diocletian and Arch of Titus).

Together, they show an important aspect of 18th century European culture: the cult of the antique as a crucial part of modern education and a desire to travel and see the sites of interest with one’s own eyes.

In my PhD project on 18th century France, I frequently deal with works that testify the interest for ancient architecture by artists, antiquarians, and architects of the time.

Drawings played an important role in such context: they were didactic tools and they served to aid the memory of visitor, once back home.

As I started my research on this particular drawing, I soon realized that I was not dealing with a faithful view of the Basilica, but with what in Italian is called capriccio, a form of disguised rendering of a particular view and a method to recreate a certain atmosphere by mixing elements from different sources.

Clérisseau was a fine connoisseur of Roman antiquities: he lived in Rome for almost twenty years from 1749 to 1767, first as a student of architecture at the French Academy, then as an independent drawing tutor to famous travellers such as the British architect Robert Adam.

Why did he create such an invention? For me, his drawing was meant to attest to the power of imagination rather than to provide an accurate depiction of the Basilica.

In fact, important figures owned this little drawing: Paul Sandby, a founding member of the Royal Academy, a topographer and watercolourist who had also gathered a fine collection of Master drawings, was the first owner of the work.

The inscription on the verso suggests that its second owner was Horace Walpole, whose vast art collection was sold in 1842 at Strawberry Hill, his Gothic home in southern London.

Such a remarkable lineage, along with the geometrically decorated mount in all probability coeval to the first acquisition, indicates an interest in this kind of drawing that might not be evident at first.

However, the French may have considered such artistic practice too repetitive or driven by other interests.

For the eminent collector Pierre Jean Mariette «Clérisseau has always been occupied at making drawings of ruins from imagination for the British, from which he makes good money».

Tiepolo's Magician: Our Drawing of the Week

In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2013, for one morning per week, you can see a print or drawing from our collection in the intimate setting of our Print Study Room. Next up is Tiepolo’s ‘A Magician (?) surrounded by a a group of figures’. 

Bryony Bartlett-Rawlings, Prints and Drawings Study Room Assistant, explains why she chose this drawing and what it means to her. You can see the drawing for yourself on  Wednesday 27 November, 10am-12.3opm. 

I first discovered the rich collection of prints and drawings at The Courtauld when studying for a Masters there in 2005. I found it really inspiring to work directly with this collection that covers such a broad period in the history of art; from the Renaissance through to the present day.

After leaving The Courtauld I worked at the V&A as Assistant Curator of Paintings and Drawings. This September I returned to The Courtauld to begin my PhD on early 16th-century Italian prints and drawings. I am delighted that I am also able to return as Print Room Assistant and work once again with the collection.

My favourite display that I curated whilst at the V&A was Venetian Visions. This showcased Venetian art, and in particular prints and drawings, from 1703-1797.

Although I knew Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s paintings from trips to Venice and the Veneto, it was only through working on Venetian Visions that I discovered the artist’s drawings.

Tiepolo is a particularly interesting draughtsman.

He used drawings to develop designs for paintings and sculpture as well as compositional studies. These drawings reflect the artist’s mastery of different media and create powerful images, described by one contemporary as ‘all spirit and fire’.

I’ve chosen this drawing as I feel it exemplifies Tiepolo as a draughtsman.

The identity of the figure in a turban is unclear. He occurs frequently in Tiepolo’s work and is often interpreted as a magician.

Tiepolo's drawing of A Magician (?) surrounded by a group of figures

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,
A Magician (?) surrounded by a group of figures,

Figures group around the magician, who points down to the lower centre of the sheet. Rapid lines of pen and wash emphasise his powerful gesture. Fluent pen strokes capture the figures that huddle together, looking down to where the hand points.

The arrangement of the figures recalls that of A Magician pointing to a burning head from the series Tiepolo’s of etchings, the Scherzi di Fantasia.

This drawing may be an early sketch for that etching. The Scherzi di Fantasia often show mysterious figures wearing classical and oriental costume gathered around a magician. The exact meaning of these etchings is still unknown.

For me, both his drawings and etchings provide an intimate insight into Tiepolo’s working process and inventive mind.

You can see Bryony’s choice this Wednesday 27 November 2013, 10am – 12.30pm.

Open, Sesame! The Courtauld's Hidden Treasures

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from The Courtauld’s decorative arts and sculpture collection. In a series of blog posts, postgraduate intern Laila El-Sayed takes us behind the scenes and gives an insight into how she has researched the next Illuminating Object – an Iznik dish

Three months ago, I stood in front of The Courtauld Institute of Art and said the magic phrase: Open Sesame!

My heart beat got louder and louder. The little satan in my head went on: “What if you lost grip on an art object? The money you get from the Erasmus Mundus TEEME fellowship is not enough!”. The little devil laughed out loud: “NiaHaHaHaHa this is definitely the end of your career, they will kick you back to Egypt”.

I pulled myself together and put the little satan in my head on mute, and stepped into The Courtauld’s store with Dr. Alexandra Gerstein (Sacha), Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

My eyes opened wide to such beauty: Mamluk metal cases and dishes with challenging Arabic inscriptions, Iznik jugs and dishes decorated with flowers, beautiful Kutahya coffee cups and saucers painted with yellow tulips, Patanazzi (Italian) vases depicting stories from the Bible and Torah, amazing enamel plaque painted in grisaille, and many other breath-taking art objects.

Object files

Object files

For two weeks, I was unable to decide what to choose for my Illuminating Object!

I learned a great deal from surveying the accompanying object files and listening to Sacha’s explanation of the objects.

All objects are interesting but I fell in love with a delicate 16th-century Ottoman Iznik ceramic dish. I even call it “my dish”!

Ottoman Turkish art is also related to my PhD thesis. I am working on 17th-century Ottoman travel narrative (Evliya Çelebi’s travelogue Seyahâtnâme, The Book of Travels).


Researching the Iznik dish was great fun, but writing the labels and web text were my real challenge. I have never written for a public audience and in such a limited number of words – only 150 words for the label!

My challenge was not stressful, I received a lot of help and support. My supervisor Prof. Donna Landry (The School of English, University of Kent) revised and edited the content of my web text. Eva Bensasson, the website manager, brilliantly helped me spot the stylistic problems of my writing.It was very funny to see how long my sentences are. Finally, Sacha helped me in editing labels and the web text and they are now ready to go.

I enjoyed the team work and the friendly atmosphere around The Courtauld office. Working with a team is fun.

Discussing how to display the dish

Laila and Sacha with Colin Lindley, measuring the dish to make a mount for it

It was to my advantage that I was doing my internship on Wednesdays! Every Wednesday afternoon there is a tea and cake ritual in The Courtauld Gallery offices. Someone brings a delicious cake, most of them were homemade.

Ah, yummy cakes, tea, amiable conversations and friendly faces!