François Diday is considered the father of Swiss landscape painting, although his reputation was eclipsed in his own lifetime by his pupil Alexandre Calame. From March 1824 until spring 1825, Diday traveled in Italy, where he made numerous oil studies, of which this is a rare surviving example. Although he suffered financially in the short-term when a mishap caused a shipment of these works bound for sale in Geneva to fail to leave Rome, his retention of them served him well during the remainder of the decade, when he is said to have exhibited many "études peintes d’après nature" depicting Italian subjects.
A painting that fits the description of the present work (which bears a label affixed to its strainer that is inscribed "Couloir intérieur du Colisée / à Rome") was reportedly included, uncatalogued, in one of a pair of influential 1826 exhibitions held at Galerie Lebrun, Paris, both entitled Ouvrages de peinture exposés au profit des Grecs (see Schreiber-Favre 1942). Organized to benefit the cause of Greek independence, they had the effect of recasting the legacy of Jacques Louis David in the light of the burgeoning Romantic movement. Each featured major paintings by David’s pupil Antoine Jean Gros. Diday was a former pupil of Gros, and it can be assumed that his participation in the exhibition owes something to this relationship. The first exhibition (May 17–July 3, 1826) included 198 numbered exhibits and the second (July 16–November 19, 1826) included 173. This suggests a possible clue to the significance of the number 208 inscribed on the strainer of this painting (the back of the canvas is similarly numbered 2), which may have been added to one or the other exhibition after the respective catalogues were printed.
Much of this sketch appears to have been painted on location in the Colosseum, but the artist probably added finishing touches after that visit, including not only his signature and the date but also the lantern and the rope from which it hangs, as well as, along the left wall, the debris at the top of the steps and the detailed treatment of the second opening.
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]