- David's Roman "Vedute"
After a series of failed attempts at obtaining the Academy's coveted Prix de Rome, Jacques-Louis David finally won the prestigious competition with Antiochus and Stratonice in 1774. Determined not to be seduced by the antique, David left Paris for Rome in 1775, having denigrated the art of the past as controlling, cold and rigid. Yet as a student at the French Academy in Rome from 1775–80, he came to embrace the classical aesthetic he had previously resisted. While in Rome the young artist made a vast number of drawings that he later would use as a visual vocabulary and which would serve as a continual source of inspiration throughout his career. Although referred to in the David literature, this compendium of drawings—gathered together in what are known as the Roman albums—have been little studied.1 This is a remarkable lacuna in David studies for the drawings offer precious insights into what the artist observed during his lengthy Roman sojourn and reveal to us the individual choices he made about what to record, interpret and remember.
In this essay I will examine a fascinating, recurrent element found in the albums, namely the artist's multifarious representations of architecture. This corpus of imagery remains the most neglected and least understood of all the drawings; scholars, when they do discuss the Roman albums, tend to focus on the figural studies after Renaissance paintings and antique [End Page 173] sculpture.2 In studying the Roman albums we notice that many drawings accurately depict architectural structures that David sketched on site, including a large number of antique Roman buildings. In addition to copying whole structures, complex interior scenes and architectural motifs, David drew numerous scenes throughout Italy that included cityscapes and landscapes. It is curious to note that human figures are absent from most of his architectural imagery (more will be said about this later). The large number of drawings from David's two visits to Italy reveal the artist's architectural propensities and his desire to capture architectural detail in an authentic manner.3
We will look at a few salient examples from the Roman albums that reveal the artist's remarkable and intense involvement with architecture, consider them in the light of the genre of the Roman vedute made popular in the late eighteenth century by artists such as Piranesi, and see how David incorporated and transformed architectural imagery from his Roman albums in two of his most famous paintings, The Oath of the Horatii and The Sabine Women. These are but two examples of David's emphasis on architecture in paintings made after his return from Rome. In his earliest paintings produced prior to his Italian sojourn, David, in accord with stylistic norms of his time, used architecture as a decorative backdrop or setting for historical narratives (as one finds, for example, in the Death of Seneca from 1773, or Antiochus and Stratonice from 1774). Following his first Roman sojourn, architectural components contained within his paintings begin to assert themselves and take on a new, dramatic role in the narrative, often conveying various symbolic and metaphorical meanings. The architectural drawings from the Roman albums mark a decisive moment in David's career when the medium of architecture receives an important, new-found purpose.
In 2002, Pierre Rosenberg and Louis-Antoine Prat published the first comprehensive catalogue of David's drawings, including the extant drawings from his Roman albums. While catalogues of David's drawings existed before this point—most notably by Arlette Sérullaz, who concentrated on David's drawings in the Louvre's collection—never before had scholarship produced such a vast and readily accessible record of the artist's thought process as it presents itself through the medium of drawing.4 Upon careful scrutiny of Rosenberg and Prat's immense two-tome catalog, one is struck by the large number of drawings by David that contain prominent and dramatic architectural components, particularly from his Roman albums. At first glance, one might mistake the drawings for mere student exercises. Yet these architectural renderings reveal the artist's passionate engagement with architecture and an understanding of its great potential...