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Louis Jean Desprez & Francesco Piranesi

1743 Auxerre – 1804 Stockholm & 1756 Rome – 1810 Paris

The Tomb of Mamia in Pompeii. Etching, reworked with water colour and gouache, the image surrounded by an engraved paper mat. 47.9 x 69.3 cm. Signed “despres” with pen and brown ink at the lower left of the image; on the paper mat signed and titled by the artist in pen and brown ink “Desprez” respectively “Tombeau de Mamia à P…” (signature and title faded); annotated at the lower right by Francesco Piranesi “se vend chez Mr. François Piranesi à Rome”; verso numbered “N° 3” in pen and brown ink. Ca. 1781. Wollin 9 I (of II).

In July 1781, Louis Jean Desprez and Francesco Piranesi published a “Prospectus” in which they announced a set of Italian views made as dessins coloriés (coloured drawings). In fact, the views comprised a series of large etchings by Piranesi after designs by Desprez, who then coloured them with watercolours and gouache in a very elaborate way. The pamphlet lists forty-eight sheets showing views from the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily as well as from Rome. Finally only ten views of this ambitious project were ever realized.

The present scene shows a picturesque motif from the ancient city of Pompeii, where the archaeological excavations had begun in 1748, just a few decades before this work was done. A group of distinguished “tourists” are visiting the ruins of the “Tomb of the Priestess Mamia”, which had been discovered between 1758 and 1764 by the Swiss archaeologist and military engineer Karl Jakob Weber (1712–1765). Desprez lends the scene a deliberately theatrical character by having the protagonists act as if on a very confined stage. On the left an elegant lady with a parasol peers somewhat cautiously into an opened grave, while other visitors in the company of a guide and an armed soldier are shown to good dramatic effect entering the tomb itself via some steps, while locals in traditional dress observe the noble strangers through a small gate. Carefully arranged props, like the four ancient stone masks on the wall to the left and the chunks of masonry lying around, underline the picturesque and somewhat macabre ambience of the place. The withered tree stumps and dried up branches in the foreground are in striking contrast to the blooming  Mediterranean vegetation behind the wall enclosing the shrine. Desprez’ restrained colouring, which is mainly confined to green, blue and grey tones, creates gentle transitions and a maximum of atmosphere, making this print an attractive and characteristic work of art from the age of the Grand Tour.

Colours fresh. An early state before the engraved artists’ names and before the title. Wollin lists only four impressions of this state, including two hand-colored copies in public collections (National Museum, Stockholm; Albertina, Vienna). The engraved mat shows slight discoloration and foxing, verso slight soiling and water-staining, otherwise in very good and original condition.

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