Design for a vaulted ceiling by Vincenzo Brenna

This highly finished and elegantly drawn design was executed by the Italian architect, interior decorator and decorative painter Vincenzo Brenna (1745-1820) around 1776.

It is thought to represent the vault of the Eagle Room of the Domus Aurea. The central panels depict, from the top, the end of the harvest with two ephebes and a maiden collecting fruit and corn in a carriage as an offering to Pomona, the Roman goddess of gardens and orchards. In the centre of the composition is a scene showing the Greek Princess Ariadne asleep on the island of Naxos, and being abandoned by Theseus after having helped him defeat the Minotaur. The lower panel represents a religious procession, with the columns on the left symbolising a temple. The panels, dominated by tones of red and blue, are framed by friezes of alternating imperial eagles, peacocks and griffins.

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Design of the vault of the Eagle Room, Domus Aurea, by Vincenzo Brenna, about 1776. Museum no. CIS 8479:20. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Meaning 'Golden House', the Domus Aurea was a Roman palace built by Emperor Nero shortly after the great fire of Rome in AD 64. It was never completed and was partly destroyed by fire in AD 104. It is considered one of the most significant classical structures of its time, and its decoration provided a rich source of inspiration for artists and designers, particularly during the Renaissance period and in the 18th century. Its frescoes were mostly the work of the Roman painter Famulus, celebrated for his flamboyant palette and rich repertoire of ornaments. The discovery of the palace's Oppian wing in the late 15th century gave rise to a style of decoration called 'Grotesque'.

Brenna's work in Poland for Count Stanislaus Kostka Potocki, and in Russia as Chief Court Architect for Tsar Paul I, has been well documented. Tantalisingly, very little is known about his artistic training and early career. There is evidence that by the late 1760s he had become a well-known figure among the circle of British travellers to Rome. Brenna enjoyed a reputation as an artist who excelled in detailed and highly accurate reproductions of surviving Roman decoration. He acted as draughtsman and general assistant for the celebrated collector and connoisseur Charles Townley. Some of the drawings he commissioned from Brenna are in the V&A's collection and accessible in the Prints and Drawings Study Room.

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Design of the vault of the Eagle Room (Detail), Domus Aurea, by Vincenzo Brenna, about 1776. Museum no. CIS 8479:20. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The present design might have been done as part of Brenna's first illustrative project for Ludovico Mirri's publication entitled 'Vestigia delle Terme di Tito e le loro Pitture… ', published in Rome in 1776. Intended as a visual guided tour of the various rooms of what was then thought to be the Baths of Titus, the book recorded methodically and with extreme precision the lavish decorative scheme and elegant frescoes of the imperial dwelling. Mirri's publication would have been largely intended for foreign visitors to Italy. The last decades of the 18th century witnessed the expansion of a market for reproductions of classical sites as grand tourists eagerly sought to bring home the visual mementoes of their journeys abroad.