This bold composition was drawn by Antonio Zucchi in 1776, and was made whilst he was working for James and Robert Adam, helping to create some of the most iconic neo-classical interiors of the late eighteenth century. Zucchi’s scenographic paintings - large-scale ruinscapes - were designed as the perfect complimentary decoration for the Adams’ classical rooms. This impressive sheet perfectly illustrates the composite approach to antiquity which lay at the heart of the Adams’ architecture and which Zucchi learnt alongside the Adam brothers in Rome working in the orbit of Giovanni-Battista Piranesi and Charles Louis Clérisseau.
Zucchi was born in Venice, the son of Francesco Zucchi an engraver. He trained with Amigoni in Venice, where he practiced as a history painter, being elected a member of the Accademia di Pittore e Scultore in 1759. Zucchi seems first to have met James Adam in 1760 when he is recorded visiting Pola with James and his drawing-master, Clérisseau. In 1763 Zucchi painted an impressive portrait of James Adam surrounded by classical sculpture and a model of a capital from ‘the British order’, which James had designed for a projected new parliament building. James, on the eve of his departure from Italy, tried to persuade Zucchi, whom he described in a letter home as ‘a worthy honest lad, a most singular character’, to join the Adam office in London.
In 1766 Zucchi did travel to London with his brother Giuseppe to work for the Adams. Zucchi became the chief decorative painter producing illustrations from Homer and Virgil for ceilings, arabesque work and most impressively, large landscape capriccios. The present grand drawing was almost certainly made in preparation for an Adam interior. In 1776 Zucchi was in the midst of producing ruinscapes for Sir Rowland Winn at Nostell Priory, delivering four large paintings for the upper hall. Whilst the present sheet does not relate directly to the finished paintings, it was precisely the kind of composition Zucchi was being commissioned to execute for the Adam brothers. This composition includes a number of ruinous antique buildings: on the right a triumphal arch, in the middle-distance a bridge and on the left a grand equestrian sculpture, loosely based on one of the Dioscuri from the Quirinal hill. Arranged in the foreground, Zucchi has placed a frieze of classically dressed figures playing musical instruments, drinking and suggestive of Arcadian ease. Broadly handled in black and bistre wash highlighted with touches of white gouache, the drawing is a perfect distillation of the picturesque approach to antiquity which the Adam brothers made central to their architecture.
This type of ruinscape reflected the influence of the Adams’ drawing master in Rome, the French painter and architect, Charles Louis Clérisseau. Clérisseau produced numerous architectural capriccios based upon his scrupulous observation and understanding of the remains of antiquity. The privileging of the fragment also reflected the work of Giovani Battista Piranesi and it is clear that Zucchi’s work was inspired by Piranesi’s philosophy. In compositions such as this Zucchi was presenting the sources of the antique ornament that the Adam brothers were using in their architecture.
Zucchi was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1770 designed the frontispiece for The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1773). Zucchi’s drawings, like those of Clérisseau, were popular amongst collectors during the eighteenth century. The present sheet belonged to the publisher and fan-maker Antonio Poggi. Poggi was a friend of Zucchi’s wife, Angelica Kauffman and he was responsible for publishing a large number of her compositions as stipple engravings for use in decorative work. The present drawing was included in his sale at Christie’s in 1782 where it and another drawing made £9.9s, it was acquired by the landscape painter Paul Sandby. Sandby was a major collector and dealer in drawings, particularly of drawings by his contemporaries and fellow members of the Royal Academy. In the nineteenth century the drawing passed into the collection of the great print-collector and scholar John Chaloner Smith.