Design Project for Les Martyrs, original drawing
Projet de décor présumé pour les Martyrs
Ink, watercolor and gouache on paper, ca. 1840
610 x 800 mm
Private Collection, France
This outstanding watercolour, as much for its size as for its quality, was made by the painter and set designer Pierre-Luc-Charles Cicéri, helped, most likely, by his assistants. The foreground with monumental columns bearing the arms of Roman legions and a lodge protected by an immense sheet, looks out onto an amphitheater of spectacular size. In the background, the hills of Rome with its antique temples, rise like sharp mountains. In the center, numerous small strokes of white gouache suggest the presence of a large animated crowd, raising clouds of dust in the arena, a promise of the tragic drama yet to unfold.
In 1838, the final work of composer Gaetano Donizetti was banned by King Ferdinand II and the board of censors of Naples. Donizetti had to wait until the spring of 1840 for a revised version of his work to finally be performed in Paris, under the new title Les Martyrs. The French libretto was written by Eugène Scribe and the scenography designed by Cicéri. The opera was inspired by the tragedy of Corneille, based on the life of the early Christian martyr, Saint Polyeuctus. To fit the French standards of grand opera, the work was divided into four acts instead of the orignal three of the Italian version. The description of the fourth and final act corresponds to the present watercolour : « A tent looking out onto the circus, lodge of the proconsul and the governor ». On the back of the sheet, there is a pleasing attribution of the work to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in David’s studio. It bears the initials of the painter Luc-Olivier Merson, whose father publisheda biography of the great master of Montauban in 1867.