This site, with the Porta di San Paolo and Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, became a popular burial ground for non-Catholics including the poet John Keats (d. 1821) (recorded in Percy Bysshe Shelley's preface to Adonais: An elegy on the death of John Keats, 1821). G. B. Piranesi was among those who published prints depicting this popular Roman site.
Such Japanese lacquer panels are likely to have been executed in Deshima, Nagasaki, to the order of Dutch trading directors such as Commander Isaac Titsingh, Opperhoofd of The Dutch East India Company [VOC] in 1780 and 1782-84 and Baron Johan van Reede tot de Parkeler, Opperhoofd in 1786 and 1788-89. In 1793 Baron van Reede sent a collection of Japanese objects to his father in the Netherlands. In the detailed list he drew up, there is reference to 'two oval portraits of Frederick II, one of which is lacquered with colours...'. Besides such portrait plaques, topographical views of European and Oriental subjects based on prints were also executed, as in the present example. O. Impey & C. Jorg divide these plaques into possible groups of which L'Europe illustré, published in Paris between 1755 and 1765 and compiled by Dreux du Radier, served as a model. The exact source of the present lot is unknown, although the Piranesi print is very close, many graphic representations of the pyramid of Gaius Cestius were known. A series that was probably commissioned by Baron Reede in 1788 while head of the Dutch trading commission at Deshima, Nagasaki included several views of Rome including St Peter's, The Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, the Palazzo Corsini, the Churches of S. Eustachio, S. Giovanni Laterano and Santa Costanza illustrated in O. Impey & C. Jorg, Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Amsterdam, 2005, pp. 52-54, figs. 67-78.
Only one other of the plaques in the series features mother-of-pearl inlay: the rectangular portrait plaque of Joseph II in the Rijksmuseum (ibid., p. 51, fig. 64) and no known topographical plaque from this series features mother-of-pearl. This panel is almost certainly an early and rare example of the mother-of-pearl inlay technique later employed in Nagasaki throughout the 19th century. The plaques may have been presented as diplomatic gifts, as one plaque depicting a view of the River Neva, St Petersburg with the Winter Palace and the Academy of Sciences was given to Catherine II by J. A. Stutzer, the Swedish doctor who had served with the VOC in Deshima in 1787-88 (ibid., p. 52).