Louis Jean Desprez and his Sicilian Recollections
Per Bjurström (Stockholm)
Documentation et Art de l'Acteur
Records and Images of the Art of the Performer
18ème Congrès International, Stockholm 3-7 septembre
18th International Congress, Stockholm 3-7 September 1990
Editor: Barbro Stribolt (Drottningholms Teatermuseum). Stockholm: 1992, p. 17-22
When Louis Jean Desprez arrived in Rome on September 3,
1777, he was virtually too old to take up a position as an Academy "boarder". As
early as 1765 he had been a student at l'Académie Royale d'Architecture in Paris, where
he was awarded a medal in his very first year. In 1771 he competed for the first time for
"le Grand Prix", i.e. the Rome scholarship, but failed. In 1774 his contribution
was accorded honourable mention and the competition committee expressed their appreciation
of his potential, especially within the world of the theatre.
Desprez was 33 by then and had been married since 1770, much to the concern of the
powerful "directeur général des bâtiments et jardins de Louis XVI",
d'Angiviller, to whom Desprez was looking for provision for his wife while he was in Rome.
Generally, "boarders" were quite young men, mere school boys almost, who had to
submit to the strict discipline of the Academy.
The rules were more lenient with the would-be architects: they got up later and were given
free rein to study and make drawings in the various palaces and churches of the city; for
long excursions they were even provided with picnic baskets of food and wine.
Desprez had hardly settled in Rome, when he was involved in a large project which was to
have great influence on his later artistic development. Abbé Richard de Saint-Non, a
connoisseur and an artist himself, had spent the years 1759 to 1761 in Italy in pursuit of
antique relics on journeys to Naples, Herculaneum and Pompeii in the company of Fragonard
and Hubert Robert.
15 years later he was preparing, on the basis of their drawings, the publication of a
comprehensive description, in words and pictures, of Southern Italy - Naples and Sicily.
He was fascinated by ancient Magna Graecia, the Italy that had a history of its own from
the Greeks and Carthaginians of antiquity and the Normans and Hohenstaufens of the Middle
For centuries Sicily had been a part of Europe that was totally unknown, but in 1727 a
Dutchman, Jean-Philippe d'Orville made rather extensive travels on the island. The result,
however, was not published until after his death in 1751.
D'Orville's prime ambition was to describe the ancient monuments; he did so objectively,
but also completely dispassionately. He never indulged in detailed depictions of scenes of
local life, although he could not help making ironic comments on the monks and their
Sicily did not become commonly known until a German baron, Riedesel, published an account
of his 1767 journeys entitled "Reise durch Sicilien und Gross Griechenland"
(1771); in 1773 the English doctor, Patrick Brydone, published "A Tour through Sicily
and Malta", describing a journey undertaken in 1770.
In 1776 Jean Benjamin de Laborde, who was a man of enterprise, had begun preparing a
monumental work on all conceivable aspects of Switzerland and Italy. It was to have no
less than 1 200 illustrations after sketches by not only Fragonard and Hubert Robert, but
also Le Barbier, Pérignon, Châtelet, Houël, and others. A six-volume edition was the
final aim, and publication was initiated with a few instalments on Switzerland.
The entire venture proved a disappointment, though, and subscribers failed to emerge. At
this point Laborde turned to Saint-Non, who joined the enterprise together with his
brother La Bretêche. The artists who were first commissioned to work on the project were
Châtelet and P.A. Paris (who had both been working for Laborde), Renard and finally
Desprez. Jean Houël followed his own course and published in Paris 1782 four volumes.
Châtelet and Desprez were to produce the lion's share of the illustrations for
Saint-Non's work. As early as in the beginning of December, hardly more than three months
after his arrival in Italy, Desprez travelled to Naples to see D. Vivant-Denon, a young
secretary at the French Neapolitan legation, whom Saint-Non had charged with the job of
providing the text, or a draft of the text, that was to accompany the pictures.
Along with Jean Benjamin de Laborde's abortive 1776 attempt, Saint-Non's "Voyage
pittoresque" is the first instance of the genre, and it is indicative of the interest
in reality characteristic of the Enlightenment.
Parallel to the publication of the artist-explorers' accounts of unknown parts of the
world, an entire literature on the remote borderlands and wilds of Europe came into being:
the Alps, the Pyrenees, Scotland and the Nordic countries. The driving force behind this
development was a scientific interest in nature and a longing for sublime and unspoilt
scenery. Strictly speaking the human figures in the landscapes were ornamental, although
they also helped to define the dimensions and served as reminders of the majesty of nature
and the insignificance of man.
Southern Italy and Sicily were at a halfway point in this respect. The scenery was wild
and dramatic with the only active volcanoes of the European continent. At the same time
the cultural heritage of the population was complex, and antique and medieval customs were
well preserved. For Saint-Non, however, objectivity was an essential, almost scientific,
prerequisite, sa Desprez' curiosity and interest in mysterious rites and inexplicable
customs were never quite satisfied.
Desprez' first stop on his tour of Italy was Manfredonia on the Adriatic coast. He then
went south to Brindisi and via Lecce turned towards Taranto and Reggio from where he made
the crossing to Messina in Sicily on May 2, 1778. From there he went south again to
Taormina and Catania, but he and Denon quickly turned west in order to reach Palermo in
time for the great feast of Sainte Rosalie on July 10.
They reached their destination on July 2, and wasting no time Desprez began making
drawings of the buildings and localities involved in the festive proceedings: Porta Nuova,
Porta Felice, the Cathedral square and Piazza Vigliena at the crossroads between Via
Maqueda and the Cazarro, which led from Porta Felice in the harbour to Porta Nuova with
The piazza had the form of an octagon or a circle, the facades facing it provided with
large balconies, a festive piazza in the absolute centre of Palermo with a magnificent
vista down the entire length of the Cazarro. This was the route of the Sainte Rosalie
procession with the marvellous chariot, and this was the route that served as the course
over which the horserace was run.
Desprez must have made sketches of the festivities and the street life of the town, for
the finished engravings in Saint-Non's work teem with local festive scenes. He gives us
detailed renderings of the various events, of spectator stands and seats of honour, of
people in the procession, of spectators and local life in general. Desprez here reveals an
entirely new side of his talent, different from that of the classical architect.
His originality is most striking in his depiction of light and atmosphere: just before the
procession with the magnificent chariot set out from the harbour, gunpowder was exploded
and blank shots fired, enveloping the entire place in smoke. Smoke and a pronounced
backlight also characterize the scene in front of the cathedral.
Desprez studied the Palermo architecture with as much zeal as he studied the classical
monuments, be it the Gothic cathedral or the baroque facades around Piazza Vigliena. He
focused on their function as background for scenes of local life, and he turned a blind
eye to other notable buildings in Palermo.
What is it that has aroused such a keen interest in Desprez' activities in Palermo during
some weeks of the summer of 1778? The experience must have made such an impact on him that
many of the pictorial elements re-emerged when he was producing Queen Christina and
Gustavus Vasa, two dramas by Gustavus III, in Stockholm in 1785 and 1786. In one of
the scenes in the first act of Christina we find the earlier mentioned pronounced
backlight effect in the depiction of the figurants: they appear as a series of Identical
figures of which only single outline can be discerned.
The third act of Gustavus Vasa abounds in Sicilian recollections: the Tre Kronor
bears a striking resemblance to Porta Nuova, the Storkyrka to the Palermo Cathedral. From
the top of its column, however, the equestrian statue conjures up North Italian memories.
There can be no doubt that when Desprez was creating the setting for Gustavus Vasa, he was
not without local knowledge. The Storkyrka was there, and he must have known the Tre
Kronor from engravings in Erik Dahlberg's "Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna".
Nevertheless he added a couple of storeys to its donjon, crenellated its walls, and
provided the Storkyrka with a Gothic cloister with elegantly twisted columns. All this, of
course, may have been the result of a general wish to embellish and decorate, to make use
of the abundance of effects available in the world of the stage.
Why did Desprez go back to his Sicilian memories, in particular his Palermo recollections?
It is possible that he saw the Sicilian Gothic as an expression of a Nordic influence
stemming from the Norman conquest of the island in 1060 by Roger de Hauteville. For
Desprez, himself a Frenchman hailing from Auxerre, the Normans represented a Nordic
culture, and after all, the Norman conquest of Sicily took place no more than 200 years
after the Normans had settled in Normandy.
Desprez may also have felt prompted by the entire set of ideas behind the plans of
Gustavus III for a play of chivalry to be performed at the Drottningholm Castle during the
summer of 1782. The play dealt with subjects from the age of chivalry, and the King had
been inspired by Jean-Baptiste de Lacurne de Sainte-Palaye and Louis-Elisabeth de Tressan,
who had both contributed to the translation into French of Ariosto's Roland epic as well
as excerpts from Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato (both 1780).
It is symptomatic, perhaps, that in the play, planned but never performed, and dealing
with the Liberation of Angelica (1782), the King reserved for himself the role of the
Christian knight, Roger, namesake of the Norman prince who conquered Sicily, and of his
son, Roger II (1105-54), who incorporated also Naples, Capua and Apulia into his realm.
There is great affinity between the whole set of ideas and also the outer form of the
plays of chivalry and the historical operas at the court of Gustavus III on one hand, and,
on the other, the plots and milieus of the so-called opere di pupi, the type of
puppet theatre still practised in Catania and Palermo even today.
It is a tradition for certain families to run such theatres; the puppets are between 1 and
1.4 metres tall and represent paladins and heroines from the Roland legend. The plays deal
with strifes between Christian knights and Saracens, with perilous adventures and
passionate love. There is a striking resemblance between the costumes made by Desprez for Gustavus
Vasa and those of the Sicilian puppets.
Nowhere in Italy and hardly anywhere in Europe have folk traditions and a great profusion
of religious festive rites been preserved so well as in Sicily. Quite a number of Catholic
feasts retain traces of antique rituals, and often the festivities comprise an
unintegrated blend of serious elements and popular and burlesque ingredients. Desprez
marvelled at these discrepancies of style, and a mixture of keen interest and critical
bigotry made him note them very carefully.
Two sheets in particular contain figures that attract our attention. One is of the central
square in Catania where a group of itinerant mountebanks and actors have built their
stage, the other depicts a scene outside a chapel at the foot of the hills of ancient
The performers of the Catania sheet are all engaged in obscene activities and anal jests;
the enema syringe was one of the most frequently used stage properties of the commedia
dell'arte tradition, especially in the vulgar variants performed in streets and squares.
The repertory was based on very coarse jests with sexual connotations, and the Catania
sheet surprises us, not by its brutality but by its lack of erotic implications. There is
therefore no reason to believe that Desprez supplemented his experiences with his own
The Agrigentum sheet is a different story. Agrigentum was famous for its antique
monuments, its missions and miracles, and for many people, C.A. Ehrenswärd among them, it
represented the heart of Sicilian culture. So Desprez must have been surprised, taken
aback, shocked, not to say indignant, at the activities of the religious establishment in
Sicily in general, and in Agrigentumin particular. In his comment Saint-Non intimates that
even if the artist has given free rein to his imagination, superstitiousness has certainly
been carried to extremes in Agrigentum.
Apparently it was customary within the various Sicilian monastic orders for the monks to
hide their faces under a hood, cucullo (lat.: cucullus), while performing religious
rites. Originally the faces were concealed in token of religious humility and penitence.
Tombstones from the 13th and 14th centuries, preserved in the Camposanto in Pisa, show
monks, cucullo before the face and scourge in hand.
In Madonna della Pergolata, a painting by Giovanni Boccati executed in 1446 for the
Oratorio della Confraternita di San Domenico in Perugia, both St. Domenicus and St.
Franciscus are seen with a retinue of monks in white; they conceal their faces behind cucullos,
and their gowns are split down the back prepared for flagellation.
In a 1747 rendering of a Maundy Thursday procession in Perpignan a flagellant is seen
hiding his face in a cucullo, while walking between tableaux depicting the
scourging and the crowning with thorns of Christ. And in a scene depicting a procession in
front of the Cathedral of Catania from 1835 we can see the habit still in use in Sicily.
The anonymity offered by the cucullo could also be abused as it was in Spain in the
rituals performed by the Inquisition. No one can be in serious doubt, either, about the
origins of the traditional attire of the Ku Klux Klan.
The borderline between Desprez' imagination and his actual observations is hard to define,
but it is not likely that the procession donkeys wore cucullos, nor was the
iconography of the various votive offerings as obscene and blasphemous as rendered.
The Sicilian recollections apparently stuck in Desprez' mind, for several years later he
returned to them in two magnificent sheets: Indulgences plénières (Complete
indulgence) and Promotion Médical.
In both sheets Desprez built up the compositions as scenes on a stage with wings and a
magnificent background. The milieu depicted in Indulgences plénières derives from
a Sicilian sketch that was never used in Saint-Non's work. It is of a "mission"
in Sicily up to which leads a splendid stairway with 12 platforms. At the various levels
religious ceremonies are in progress and groups of worshippers gather in front of the
altar on each platform.
This drawing served as the model for the background in the etching Indulgences
plénières although the convent church was made to look more monumental and two
storeys were added to the campanile.
Inspired by the Agrigentum sheet Desprez scattered castle ruins and a church on the
adjacent hills. To the left an aqueduct and to the right a building that seems to grow out
of the hill face, dominate the foreground. The creation of space is reminiscent of a stage
of little depth with a large background and wings at the sides.
On the steps of the convent church monks are performing "religious" rites. To
the left in the foreground monks are in procession; they carry a platform with a prelate
holding two killed geese whose blood runs into funnels. Further ahead on the processional
route is a monk on horseback with a piglet on the saddle. Grotesque and purely religious
elements merge, monks and laymen are at prayer, standards with images of saints flutter in
The column and the balcony and the group in the foreground to the right chiefly seem to
derive from Lecce recollections, although the artist's imagination has treated certain
elements rather freely.
Indulgences plénières is a denunciation of religious impiety and theological
subtlety. Promotion médical is a confrontation with the prejudices and phobias of
the medical profession.
The origin of the Promotion picture is more complex than Indulgences plénières;
Desprez actually tried to stage some of the picture scenes on the Sillgatan Theatre in
Gothenburg. In 1789 he had visited London in the vain hope that he might be chosen as
architect for the re-erection of the King's Theatre, burnt down in 1787. On the return
journey he stopped off in Gothenburg from April till October 1790.
The Desprez first-night was on September 3, and the Gothenburg journal announced:
"This evening there will be the first performance of Vulcani eruption, a
divertissement with pantomime in five acts ..... with completely new décor by H.M. Arch.
and Court Steward Despresse". The performance consisted of a number of mutually
independent scenes, and even though enema episodes and corpses and drunks had been
deleted, the whole thing did not cohere. Desprez felt badly treated by the reviewers, and
was long in recovering from the event.
Apparently it was his encounter with the popular theatre of London that made Desprez
recall his Catania experiences and Italian and French performances in the commedia
dell'arte tradition and, also, of student initiation rites at the faculty of medicine in
He etched four individual scenes "dediées a la faculté (!) de Médecine, par
l'Auteur de cette ouvrage", Le Grand docteur Pantalon explique la science de la
médecine, Le Grand docteur et la squelette d'un 'Somare', Operation de l'Hydropisie
and Le Lavement. The sheets cannot be dated with any reasonable certainty, but it
seems justified to accept Wollin's assumption that they have to do with the Gothenburg
Three of the scenes recur as details in Promotion médical, which depicts the
square in front of a large cathedral with high Sicilian hills in the background. There are
castles and country houses and convent buildings in the hills, and the cathedral square is
provided with both sepulchres and columns crowned with winged lions of St. Mark.
The centre of activity is the foreground, however, between the inn, del Porco, to
the left and the medical school to the right, where a freshman initiation ceremony, an
"anti-promotion", is in progress, mocking the two medical panaceas of the times:
enema and blood letting.
To the left Le Docteur Général, assisted by Polichinelle and Scapin, is lecturing on
medicine from a platform under which male and female patients enjoy the results of their
clysters. Chamber pots and fish-filled bags add to the general good cheer along with the
dead bodies of those who were reluctant to submit to the miracles of medicine.
On a lower platform further to the front a pharmacist and Pierrot are doing their utmost
to cure the candidate's donkey of a slight cold. Caparisoned in a doctor's cap and gown
the beast is given a clyster. On a third podium doctor Pierrot is trying to relieve a
woman of the water in her belly by piercing her with a sword. In the closest foreground at
the bottom of the picture Doctor Pantalone is administering a collective clyster to a
dozen patients. The entire ceremony is supervised by the faculty professors, who from
their balcony confer the degrees and honours merited by the various miraculous cures.
Desprez' two sheets are unique and exotic contributions to Swedish, not to say European
art; they are an attempt at documenting, in an almost monumental form, rites and
ceremonies that must have indelibly shocked the tourist, however natural they may have
been in Sicily. The brief comment on the Agrigentum etching in Saint-Non's work
demonstrates that Desprez' pictures are not the result of his prolific imagination. Of
course he dramatised what he saw, but there cannot be the slightest doubt that his
renderings are rooted in reality, although we are still without verbal confirmation.
You will find this lecture published with illustrations and footnotes in: Festschrift
to Erik Fischer, European Drawings from six Centuries, Copenhagen 1990, p 61-78.
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