François de Nomé’s Imaginary Ruins

A cathedral collapses. The fires of hell rage. Fantastic ruins stand in unrecognizable surroundings. Above it all, the sky swirls with ominous clouds.

These baroque paintings, with their theatrical chiaroscuro, saturated colors, and love of columns of every kind, were forerunners of the fantastic architecture depicted in Piranesi’s capricci — though for us they perhaps more immediately bring to mind the work of surrealists and futurists such as De Chirico, Dalí, and Ernst.

They are the work of François de Nomé. Born in Metz (present-day France) in 1593, Nomé moved to Rome while still a child and studied there with the Flemish artist Balthasar Lauwers. In 1610, he relocated to Naples, where — as far as anyone can tell — he would remain for the rest of his life.

Nomé’s visions of imaginary cities and ruins, though exceptional, are not without counterparts in the Naples of his day. The paintings of Didier Barra (also born in Metz and with whom Nomé shared a studio in Naples) are similar enough that, up until the twentieth century, both his and Nomé’s work was attributed to a mysterious man named Monsù Desiderio.

There’s no question Nomé’s paintings bear comparison with Barra’s, especially in their fascination with perspective and their use of color. But nothing ever quite matches the menace of Nomé’s skies or the extravagance of his scenes. His paintings of Atlantis, the burning of Troy, and assorted Roman rubble demonstrate a real talent for discovering beauty in disaster — and a real love for dreaming up ever more elaborate architecture.

You can explore our selection of Nomé’s extraordinary pictures below.

Note: While we are fairly certain all pictures can be sensibly attributed to Nomé, some doubt does remain in some cases. The titles given are also, in some cases, approximations — the true title not always being entirely clear.

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Ewan Morrison