The Catholic Church celebrated a Jubilee year every quarter century from the Middle Ages until 1775. The tradition was suspended in 1800 owing to the French invasion of Italy, but Pope Leo XII decreed a Jubilee for 1825. Special indulgences were granted to the faithful who could make the pilgrimage to Rome, 100,000 of whom are said to have done so. For the French community in Rome, the year 1825 took on added, related significance. The coronation of Charles X at the cathedral of Rheims on May 29 was celebrated with grand festivities held on June 20 at the Villa Medici, the seat of the French Academy in Rome, which afforded the first opportunity in decades for the French to unabashedly flourish their national pride in a truly international context. The Jubilee was extended to cities throughout Europe in 1826. On May 8 of that year, Jean-Victor Schnetz reported to his fellow painter François Gérard: "[t]he Holy Year is on; every day one meets pilgrims in groups or singly who have come to put the [holy] water to their mouths." (Henri Gérard, ed., Lettres adressées au baron François Gérard, peintre d’histoire, par les artistes et les personnages célèbres de son temps, 2nd ed., Paris, 1886, vol. 1, p. 387.)
Topographical accuracy was not Bonnefond's aim in this painting, but with the dome of Saint Peter's before the pilgrims and the mountains to their right, it appears that they are approaching Rome from the south. The scallop shells affixed to their garments, a symbol of baptism, may be read more specifically as an attribute of the Apostle James the Greater, who is characteristically depicted wearing red robes with a green mantle and carrying a staff. Perhaps these men are veterans of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella or simply from the Bourbon dominion of Naples.
At the Salon of 1827, Bonnefond would exhibit another painting on the subject, Une jeune femme accablée par les fatigues du voyage de Rome où elle se rend avec sa famille pendant l’année sainte, est secourue par des religieux de l’ordre du rachat des esclaves (present location unknown; see Charles Landon, Salon de 1827, p. 82, pl. 33).
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]