This watercolour by Desprez, a real technical tour de force, represents one of the essential stages of the Grand Tour: the Grotto of Posilippo, a tunnel built in Roman times to reach the Phlegrean Fields from Naples. Its strange, almost fantastic atmosphere, evokes the gothic novels that were about to flourish at the end of the 18th century...
1. Louis-Jean Desprez, a cosmopolitan life between Italy and Sweden
Born in Auxerre in 1743, Louis-Jean Desprez probably began his apprenticeship with the engraver Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715 - 1790) at the age of 12. He was then trained at the Royal Academy of Architecture where he attended the classes of Jean-François Blondel. After winning the Prix de Rome for architecture in 1776, he was sent to the Académie de Rome and arrived in Rome on 3 September 1777.
He was very quickly employed by the Abbé de Saint-Non to contribute to the illustration of his Voyage Pittoresque. He left with him for Naples, probably in November of 1777, and travelled through southern Italy, Sicily and Malta until 1779, drawing 130 plates for the Voyage Pittoresque.
In 1779, he returned to Rome, and in 1781 joined forces with Francesco Piranesi (1758 - 1810) who produced large etched compositions which Desprez decorated with watercolours. Competing with those produced by Volpato and Ducros, these views, presented as "watercolour drawings" were sold in Piranesi's Roman shop to wealthy tourists on their Grand Tour.
The Swedish king Gustav III, who arrived in Rome on 24 December 1783, met Desprez in his workshop on 23 March 1784 and quickly offered him the directorship of decorations for his royal theatre in Stockholm. Moving to Sweden in 1784, Desprez was entrusted with the supervision of the works of the royal palace of Haga in 1787 and became the first architect of the king in 1788. Only the foundations for this monumental palace were built, the project being abandoned after the assassination of King Gustav III during a masked ball on 29 March 1792. Desprez remained in Sweden after the death of his patron where he built the conservatory of the Botanical Garden of Uppsala and some other buildings.
2. The Grotto of Posilippo, an essential stage of the Grand Tour
The Crypta Neapolitana, also known as the Grotto of Posilippo, is a road tunnel dug at the beginning of the Roman Empire in the volcanic tuff of the Posilippo hill, west of the Bay of Naples. Of monumental dimensions, (705 metres long, 4.5 metres wide and 5 metres high) it was constructed to reach the residential towns of Baiae and Puteoli (Pozzuoli today).
While Herculaneum, the city discovered before Pompeii, was only excavated in the open air in the 19th century, the systematic excavation of the city of Pompeii began in 1765. Before this date, travellers wishing to see Roman monuments in Naples would go to the sites located to the west of the city (the Baiae baths and the site of Cumae in particular), crossing the Grotto of Posilippo on their way.
President de Brosses describes an excursion he made on 14 November 1738 (Letter X, volume II to Monsieur de Neuilly - Memoir on the environs of Naples ): “Once back in our chairs, we went into the grotto, a vaulted path through the Posilippo, by which one reaches the other side of the hill [...]. In the middle of the path, which seemed to me to be a thousand steps long, one or two large holes have been made in the vault, piercing all the way to the top to bring some light. [...] Although it is very dark, it is not so dark as to cause a collision, and two carriages abreast pass through quite comfortably.”
This tunnel was used until the end of the 19th century, when it was closed due to instability problems.
3. Description of the artwork
Desprez accentuates the monumental size of the grotto, which appears much higher than it is wide. The composition, which is bathed in a rather supernatural bluish light, is punctuated by the different zones of light created by the openings that can be seen in the vault. We can also see the end of the tunnel on which the silhouette of a coach stands out.
A large crowd of people of all types enliven the composition: peasants returning from the market, shepherds driving their flocks... Two, light, horse-drawn carriages, each illuminated by a servant standing at the back with a torch, pass each other. In the one on the left, which is coming towards us, we can see an elegant couple where the female is holding a large fan. The dominant colour of the composition is grey with only a few touches of blue to enliven the whole scheme. The smoke from the two torches, treated with gouache, takes on a very particular relief in this context.
The figure of the monk, emerging from a chapel cut into the left wall of the tunnel to bless two passers-by accompanied by their donkeys, evoques a Gothic novel. One could think of Father Schedoni, a terrifying figure in The Italian or the Confessional of the Black Penitents, a novel which was published in 1797 by Ann Radcliffe and takes place in Naples.
Various elements reinforce the disquieting, almost fantastic character of the scene. A cat is advancing on a beam upon which a lamp hangs, as if to pursue two large rats. Two owls whose wings resemble those of gigantic bats are flying above the scene.
The freedom of the watercolour execution makes one forget the base engraved by Piranesi, which is only visible in the description of the crowds along the narrow road. The immense space of the walls is executed in a very free manner, with just a few support points engraved here and there.
4. The collaboration between Piranesi and Desprez
The two artists planned to execute 19 large views of Rome and Naples, as well as a large number of smaller engravings. Only half of the large-format prints were published, the adventure having been cut short by Desprez' departure for Sweden: three views of Rome (The Illumination of the Cross, The Pauline Chapel and The Girandola above the Castel Sant'Angelo), and six of Naples (The Eruption of Vesuvius, the Temple of Semiramis in Pozzuoli, The Grotto of Posilippo, the Temple of Isis seen from the front, The Entrance to the City Gate, Mamia's Tomb). The Grotto of Posilippo, the Eruption of Vesuvius and the Girandola above Castel Sant'Angelo are the three most original and sought-after compositions in the series.
Piranesi continued to print some of the engravings, reworked with a burin and sometimes printed in colour after Desprez' departure, but those with original watercolours by Desprez are the best ones, especially when they kept their original mount signed by the artist, like the one we are presenting.
5. Other copies of the artwork
It is likely that around a dozen copies of the Grotto of Posilippo were water coloured by Desprez. In 1933, Nills Wollin listed seven copies in public collections (National Museum of Stockholm in Sweden, Salpêtrière, Ecole Polytechnique and Musée des Beaux-Arts of Rouen in France, British Museum in the United Kingdom, Albertina in Austria, Hermitage Museum in Russia).
The presence of a few examples in public collections allows for an interesting comparison between their photographic reproductions, revealing quite significant differences in the chromatic range used for each exemplar:
The Ecole Polytechnique copy has an interesting provenance: it was seized on 6 June 1793 from the hotel of the Marquis de Clermont d'Amboise after he was massacred in the Tuileries on 10 August 1792. Ambassador to Naples from 1776 to 1782, he had met Desprez there while the latter was working on the illustration of the Voyage Pittoresque, then in Rome where he had bought several watercolour drawings from him. It is also interesting to note that all of the Desprez’ plates kept at Ecole Polytechnique were classified as historical monuments, by order of the Ministry of Public Instruction and Fine Arts, on 20 December 1911.
Our presentation of the work
We also offer for sale The Girandola above the Castel Sant'Angelo by the same Desprez and we have made similar frames for these two watercolours, allowing them to be presented as a pair, even if we sell them separately.
Main bibliographical reference :
Nils Wollin – Gravures originales de Desprez - John Kroon Malmö 1933
Delevery information :
The prices indicated are the prices for purchases at the gallery.
Depending on the price of the object, its size and the location of the buyer we are able to offer the best transport solution which will be invoiced separately and carried out under the buyer's responsibility.
15 000 €