Aerial view of the Circus of Maxentius
Graphite, pen and black ink and watercolour, watermark ‘PZ’
450 x 970 mm
Crispian Riley-Smith, Fine Drawings
Provenance: Thomas Mansel Talbot (1747-1813); thence by descent.
Literature: Unpublished letter from Vincenzo Brenna to Charles Townley, 11th August 1772. G. Vaughan, ‘Vincenzo Brenna Romanus: Architectus et Pictor’, in Apollo, October 1996, vol. CXLIV, p. 40.
AND SIX DRAWINGS OF THE COLOSSEUM Vincenzo Brenna worked as an architect and draughtsman for some of the most important collectors and patrons in the late 18th Century in Italy, Russia and Poland. Brenna had a great influence upon the better known Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817). However Quarenghi referred to Brenna as his ‘il primo Maestro che io ho avuto in Architettura’[see under the drawing by Giuseppe Cades for further details of Quarenghi]. One of Brenna’s first patrons was Charles Townley-perhaps Britain’s most important collector of antiquities and Old Master Drawings in Italy. Brenna also worked for other British Grand Tourists including: Henry Blundell and Sir Watkin William-Wynn amongst others.
Brenna was also employed by the Grand Duke Paul of Russia and worked on important decorative cycles and architectural buildings at Pavlovsk, Gatchina and St. Petersburg. Whilst through Brenna’s Polish patron Count Stanislaus Kostka Potocki Brenna had an important role ‘in the diffusion of international neoclassicism in Eastern Europe’1. The re-discovery of this important group of drawings is an exciting in sight into Brenna’s known oeuvre and working practise. Additionally the provenance of the drawings is very interesting in the context of British Grand Tour patrons.
Brenna’s known corpus of drawings consist of works in the Victoria and Albert Museum2, the National Library in Warsaw3, a group in the Krannert Art Museum, Illinois, and with the occasional drawing appearing on the art market4.
The drawing of the Circus of Maxentius (attributed to Caracallae until 1825) is very much in the style of the drawings that Brenna had already drawn for Charles Townley, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which Brenna completed by 1770. Brenna wrote to Townley on 11 August 1772, tempting him with a duplicate of our drawing. Whilst the purpose of Townley’s commission was clear- ‘Brenna’s drawing belongs in a tradition of such reconstructions that goes back to the Neapolitan antiquary, painter and architect Pirro Ligorio’5 -it is likely that our drawing of the Circus of Maxentius was drawn for the same purpose, since Thomas Mansel Talbot was a keen antiquarian, like Townley. Townley had already been employing Brenna as a draughtsman and general agent since 1768. It is most likely that Townley recommended Brenna to Talbot, since Townley had already been encouraging Talbot on his antiquities for Penrice Castle6 in Wales. Thomas Talbot was in Rome on his Grand Tour between 30th November 1771 and 30th June 1772. It was probably at this time that he met Brenna, and commissioned these drawings from the artist, through one of his dealers-James Byres, as has been suggested by Gerald Vaughan. James Byres was already working for Townley and so it is not unlikely that he was also recommended to Talbot as a dealer. Brenna was also commissioned to execute drawings of bronze tripods and other objects from Herculaneum by Talbot. The extensive notes on the drawing of the Circus of Maxentius provides a key to the major antique sites. The group of drawings in the Victoria and Albert of the Colosseum also have elaborate settings, in particular the lion hunt. The chariot race and the animated crowd in our drawing are a close comparative. And so it was quite natural that Brenna would think Townley might be interested in our drawing.
The present group of drawings of the Colosseum are interesting in their relationship to the group at the Victoria and Albert Museum, since our group to do not copy the latter collection. Quite what the relationship between them is not clear at present with out further research.
1. G. Vaughan, op.cit., p. 37.
2. Inventory numbers 8478 and 8479.
3. London, Heim Gallery and elsewhere, 100 of the Finest Drawings from Polish Collections, 1980, no.10.
4. London, Hazlitt Gooden and Fox, Design, Drawings for Architecture Costume and the Decorative Arts from 1570, 1989, no. 29.
5. I. Bignamini and I. Jenkins, ‘The Antique’ p. 237, in Grand Tour, The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century, A. Wilton and I. Bignamini, 1996.
6. J. Ingamells, A Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 923.
Contact Crispian Riley-Smith, Old Master Drawings, London for additional information.