As he set out from the port of Toulon on 4th August 1784, bound for Constantinople, in the company of his patron, the comte de Choiseul-Gouffier (1752-1817), and a team of scholars assembled by the ambassador, Louis-François Cassas was probably unaware he was about to embark on an extraordinary journey that would take him across the Ottoman Empire, from October 1784 to November 1786, to the great archaeological sites of the Levant, including the desert city of Palmyra.
The training of Louis-François Cassas
When the 28-year-old draughtsman set out on his journey, he was already extremely well trained, which may help explain why the comte de Choiseul-Gouffier chose him for this particular mission, and the diversity of the drawings in his portfolio. Introduced to the arts of scientific and architectural drawing at a very early age, he subsequently trained in landscape drawing with the greatest masters of the Paris academy founded by the duc de Chabot (1733-1807), before travelling to Northern Europe, Italy, Dalmatia and Istria.
The journey to Palmyra
In the spring of 1785, after stays in Smyrna, Ephesus, Aleppo, Cyprus and Alexandria, Louis-François Cassas, whose curiosity knew no bounds, arrived in Tripoli and decided to cross the Syrian desert to the ruins of Palmyra.
Wearing eastern attire, he then joined a caravan and savoured the region, then unknown to Europeans. Welcomed on 23rd May 1785 by the Bedouin community that had settled in the precinct of the Temple of Bel, he resided amid the ruins until 30th June.
Helped on occasion by his hosts, he achieved some remarkable and important field work, from his precise and measured survey of the ground plans of the temples, theatre, and triumphal arch, to his extremely detailed drawings of the many architectural works still in place at the end of the 18th century, and a topographic map of the site.
A major contribution to knowledge of the site
A few months later, he added to this first portfolio by producing reconstruction drawings of the monuments, some highly precise, others fanciful or visionary. His portfolio of drawings of Palmyra, estimated at more than 200 sheets, represents, with his many manuscripts, an exceptional sum of knowledge on the archaeological site, which exceeds the account of the journey made in 1751 by the Englishmen Robert Wood and James Dawkins. His drawings of the funerary towers of the western necropolis - either reconstructions or made directly from the subject - are now valuable archive documents. No other travelling artist rivalled Cassas in his ability to observe, explore, measure, question, draw and reconstruct the ruins of Palmyra.