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».