Study for The Plague in Rome

La Peste à Rome

History paintings

At the Salon du Palais de l’Industrie in Paris in 1869, Delaunay showed La Peste à Rome, now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. A resounding success, the work was acquired through Napoleon III's civil list for 5000 francs; it later became part of the living artists collection at the Musée du Luxembourg.

The work is based on the medieval narrative The Golden Legend,by de Jacques de Voragine : « …this plague raged most of all in Rome and Pavia. At this time there appeared to some a good angel followed by a bad angel carrying a spear. When the good angel gave the command the bad one struck and killed, and when he struck a house all the people in it were carried out dead.».

Like all the Prix de Rome winners at the Villa Medici, Delaunay had to present «a painted sketch whose subject was drawn from mythology or history.». His source was in all probability a fresco then attributed to Pollaiolo in the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, showing the plague in Rome in 1476. Delaunay produced numerous preliminary sketches (inv. 5351-5409) and versions, one of them now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brest.

Ultimate victory at the Salon

The composition underwent many changes between 1859-1869. Roman architecture is present in the form of the stairs of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, the statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Capitol and the Torre delle Milizie. At the centre is the angel of death giving the order to strike, amid the corpses of the plague victims. In the final version the groups are more concentrated, the perspective sharper and the details more sober. The unfavourable reception given the sketch at the Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1861 only changed with the triumph at the Salon eight years later.

Study for The Plague in Rome
Inv. 5370