Robert Adam

Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalro in Dalmatia (London, 1764)

(Thomas Phillips, 1845)

Scotland's greatest architect Robert Adam (1728-92) visited Spaltro, or Spalato as it was more usually called at the time (now Split on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia), for just five weeks in July and August 1757. He was then almost at the end of a Grand Tour which had begun in October 1754 and ended with his return to London in January 1758. Early in 1755, in Florence, he met the French architectural draughtsman Charle-Louis Clerisseau (1721-1820), whom he persuaded to accompany him; Clerisseau's role seems to have been a strange mixture of Adam's teacher and also his assistant in executing drawings. The two of them journeyed to Rome together, and their Adam met the celebrated Piranesi for the first time. Piranesi had an immediate effect on him, and apparently the admiration was mutual. Adam wrote of their meeting and subsequent friendship:

Piranesi who is I think the most extraordinary fellow I ever saw is become immensly intimate with me, and as he imagined at first sight that I was like the other English who had love for Antiques without knowledge, upon seeing some of my Sketches and Drawings, was so highly delighted that he almost ran quite distracted and says that I have more genius for the true noble architecture than any Englishman ever was in Italy.

Adam was looking for a subject for a book which would put him on a par with Wood and Stuart, and thus help to launch him on his career as an architect. He chose Diocletian's Palace because it was a 'Private Edifice' and because he 'knew, from the accounts of former travellers [and he must have been thinking of Wheler and Spon - [cf. no.2] that the remains of this palace, though tolerably entire, had never been observed with any accuracy, or drawn with any taste' (Introduction to Ruins, p.2). Another reason, one suspects, may have been that the palace was reasonably near Italy, and thus visiting it would not unduly delay his retuen to Britain to pursue his career. There seems to have been an awareness of the less adventurous nature of his own choice at the conclusion of the Introduction (p.4), where he says:

Encouraged by the favourable reception which has been given of late to works of this kind, particularly to the Ruins of Palmyra and Balbec [cf. no. 4], I now present the fruits of my labor to the public. I am far from comparing my undertaking with that of messieurs Dawkins, Bouverie, and Wood, one of the most splendid and liberal that was ever attempted by private persons. I was not, like these gentlemen, obliged to traverse desarts, or to expose, myself to the insults of barbarians; nor can the remains of a single palace vie with those surprising and almost unknown monuments of sequestered grandeur which they have brought to light; but at a time when the admiration of Grecian and Roman Architecture has risen to such a height in Britain, as to banish in a great measure all fantastic and frivolous tastes and to make it necessary for every architect to study and to imitate the ancient manner, I flatter myself that this work, executed at great expence, the effect of great labor and perserverance, and which contains the only full and accurate Designs that have hitherto been published of any Private Edifice of the Ancients, will be received with indulgence, and may, perhaps, be esteemed an acquisition of some importance.

Plate XXXIII, shown here, is entitled 'View of the Inside of the Temple of Jupiter'. In fact the building is now known to have been Diocletian's mausoleum, not a temple. It subsequently became, and still is, Split's cathedral. In the engraving all the additions resulting from this conversion into a Christian place of worship, such as the pulpit and various altars, have been removed, leaving only the ancient fabric as it could never have been seen in Adam's day. At the extreme left Clerisseau is represented at work on a drawing, watched closely by one of the local inhabitants; in the centre a man, who is presumably lame, is depicted lying on a wheeled trolley or bed pulled along by one of his companions, while he and other companions beg for alms from one of the two bewigged Western gentlemen - the other of whom is studiously avoiding the embarrassing encounter by gazing with rapt attention at the architecture around him. The engraving is a good example of how in such 'views' (as opposed to architectural drawings) the demands of 'taste' often ran counter to the requirement for accuracy. 

See further: I.G.Browne, Monumental Reputation: Robert Adam and the Emperor's Palace (Edinburgh, 1992); T.J.McCormick, Charles-Louis Clerriseau and the Genesis of Neo-Classicism (New York, 1990)