In the autumn of 1816, when the young Théodore Géricault set off for Italy, he did so without the usual scholarship from the Académie. He spent his almost year-long stay in Rome in a corresponding degree of independence from the demands of Classicism. During this time he focused his attention not only on art, but also on the pulsating everyday life in the streets of the city. The artist may have seen a similarly carefree 'tarantella' in the midst of musicians and spectators. But it only inspired him to lend a broad motif a universally valid significance in a drawing executed in the style of a picture.
In the open-air celebration with music and dancing shown here, the artist has created a well-thought-out synthesis of natural-looking and carefully chosen ideal forms. The arrangement of the figures in the foreground clearly takes up the circular movement of the dance. It spreads downwards from the leading guitar player standing higher than the others, to the man playing the triangle, via the large, imposing figure with his back turned to the viewer and, following the gaze of the man sitting in an antique pose, then moves upwards again towards the dancing couple, before climaxing in their whirling around of the raised tambourine. The architectural background is a backdrop constructed by the artist and composed of the remains of an ancient portico with Corinthian pillars, a medieval campanile and a Baroque-looking building complex. No clue as to a specific location is provided either by the buildings from different eras - from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Baroque - or by the lofty mountain range in the distance. This is in fact a 'capriccio', which turns a folkloristic subject into a modern Dionysian maenad dance.
The decisive factor for the systematic coherence and energy of this drawing is the chiaroscuro, employed in addition to the linear chalk drawing. It clearly shows the artist's appreciation of sculptural values and of the effect of strong contrasts between light and dark. The distribution of white gouache and brown wash creates a lively alternation of dazzling contre-jour and shadow, which supports the atmosphere created by the low-lying sun of the early evening and the dynamism of the event. Thanks to its technical brilliance and the masterly translation of the experience of reality into an idealised composition, the French artist's drawing represents an important counterbalance to the Nazarene draughtsmanship of Franz Pforr and Peter Cornelius within the field of nineteenth-century art at the Städel's Collection of Prints and Drawings.