Art in 18th-century Rome abounds with depictions of actual contemporary events: ambassadorial visits to St. Peters, cardinals travelling to patricians’ villas, Masses to celebrate the bestowal of chivalric orders and even the announcement of the winning lottery ticket. The artists who produced such images, Vanvitelli, Panini and Subleyras to name a few, provide us with a vivid record of the pageantry and drama of life in the Eternal City. Among the artists who produced some of the most memorable of such images was Louis-Jean Desprez.
The present drawing depicts the Mass of the Annunciation which took place each year on the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March at the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The Pope, assisted by two Cardinals, the Confraternity of the Annunciation and their retinue, blesses alms and gifts to be bestowed as dowries for the future nuns, poor unmarried girls, who wear virginal white veils. King Gustavus III of Sweden (1746–1792) attended just such a ceremony in 1784, which was recorded in the pages of the Roman weekly record of society gossip, the Diario Ordinario also known as Cracas. Gustavus attended a number of papal ceremonies during his stay in Rome between 24 December 1783 and 19 April 1784, but the Feast of the Annunciation as meticulously described by the Diario Ordinario is the one that comes closest to the event illustrated in this drawing, with the nuns-to-be kneeling left and right, the Pontiff, Pius VI, in triple tiara, cope and crozier accompanied by two cardinals and the deputies of the Confraternity gathered in the center. To the left, on a platform, King Gustavus watches the ceremony. There is an unusual feature, however, which is that the proceedings have been transposed from Santa Maria sopra Minerva to the French titular church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
This reimagining may have been prompted by King Gustavus’s close cultural, political and diplomatic relations with France. The Franco-Swedish entente was deepened by the personal friendship of the Ambassador Cardinal François-Joachim de Pierre de Bernis (1715–1794) and King Gustavus. The French Ambassador to the Holy See, who may have promoted the Swedish King’s admiration of Desprez, apparently saw the King every day during his time in Rome. As a French subject, the church of San Luigi dei Francesi was important to De Bernis who is buried there.
Cracas records that King Gustavus visited Desprez in his studio on 23 March, two days before the event recorded in our sheet and the two must have met before as Desprez recorded the Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s attended by King Gustavus in 1783 in a painting and a preparatory watercolor both now in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (NM 802 and NMB 397). Desprez’s French connections were impeccable: he had won the Prix de Rome for architecture in 1776 having studied at the Académie Royale d’Architecture in Paris. Soon after his arrival in Rome, Desprez accompanied the Abbé de Saint-Non, with Hubert Robert, Vincent and Fragonard to help prepare illustrations for his famous Voyage Pittoresque (National Gallery of Art, 1985.61.2660). After his return to Rome, Desprez would focus on a career as a painter and stage designer. He was profoundly influenced by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (see cat. 23) whose fanciful evocations of Roman architecture were so influential in Rome at this moment.
The series of works, recording Gustavus’s visit to Rome, are superb fusions of Desprez’s sense of fantasy, drama and architectural splendor. So great an impression did they make that Desprez was invited by King Gustavus to work at his court in Sweden. He worked there for the Royal Opera House and his debut was appropriately for stage designs for the opera Queen Christina. Although his fortunes waned with the assassination of King Gustavus III in 1792, he continued to live in Stockholm until his death in 1804. This drawing remained in Scandinavia until the mid-19th century, passing through the outstanding collections of the Danish architect Gottfried Schaper and then the equally important collection of Benjamin Wolff which remained intact until its recent dispersal in 2019.❖