In July 1754, Robert was among the 47 people to arrive in Rome in the entourage of the newly appointed French Ambassador Etienne-François, Comte de Stainville, in whose household his parents had been employed. Under the protection of the future Duc de Choiseul, Robert was given a place as a pensionnaire at the French Academy, then housed in the Palazzo Mancini on the Corso. He would remain in Rome for the next eleven years.
Upon Robert's arrival in the city, Charles Natoire, the venerable Director of the French Academy, referred to him as 'that young man who likes architecture,' and from the start of his career, Robert favored compositions with architecture and antiquities over pure landscape. He studied perspective with Panini, who taught at the French Academy until his death in 1765. Robert's earliest paintings and drawings, such as the somewhat awkward Alexander at the Tomb of Achilles (c. 1756; Kaufmann and Schlageter Bequest, Musée du Louvre, Paris), are virtual pastiches of Panini's manner.
He soon opened his eyes to real life in the Eternal City, however, and the Panini-inspired paintings gave way to sharply observed views of modern Rome that captured in an original manner the casual coexistence of contemporary life with the monumental remnants of the antique and Renaissance worlds that is such a striking feature of Rome, even today. The Sculptor in Saint Peter's (c. 1758; Musée du Petit Palais, Paris) depicts a sculptor carving a monumental marble statue in a niche in the famous Basilica, suspended on scaffolding high above the confessional box, around which mill various pilgrims, tourists, beggars and a dog. A magnificent pair of paintings, The Colonnade and Gardens of the Villa Medici and The Remains of the Palace of Pope Julius (1759; Private Collection, New York) depict famous palaces and popular tourist sites of Renaissance Rome. The appeal of Robert's paintings lay in the contrast between the humbleness of the everyday events that he presents and the soaring grandeur in which he sets them - the magnificent arches, coffered ceiling and grand statuary that lay waste in the once-great country palace of Pope Julius III, for example. The Entrance of the Pantheon (1759; Museo delle Belle Arti, La Valletta) represents the interior of ancient Rome's greatest monument in darkness and decay, lined in wooden scaffolding and filled with Roman children at play, sleeping dogs, and adults out for an afternoon walk.
The Catafalque of Pope Benedict XIV in Saint Peter's in Rome is among the earliest and finest of this group of paintings. Its figures are characteristically vivid but abbreviated, with Swiss Guards, exotic tourists, colorfully dressed local peasants, and men of the church making their way beneath a cloud of incense to the funeral bier to pay their final homage to the pontiff. It was executed with the speed and broad manner of an oil sketch, in luscious, fatty strokes of pigment, and like the previously mentioned paintings, it attends closely to conveying the particular atmosphere and effects of daylight in its specific setting -- in this instance, the towering interior of the great Vatican basilica. It reproduces with deceptively simple means, but to amazing effect, the drama, solemn grandeur and ritualized pomp of a papal funeral.
The 83-year-old pope died on 3 May 1758, having led the Church for almost eighteen years. Plans were immediately drawn up for his funeral, and Robert presumably started his painting within the week. A wash drawing by the artist that lays out his design for the painting is the Bibliothèque Municipal de Besançon. This sketch approaches the scene from the same low angle that Robert would also employ in the painting, emphasizing the soaring height of the coffered ceiling of the church. In both, the figures are dwarfed by the building and the catafalque. However, that monument is even more massive and overwhelming in the study, and it takes a somewhat different form, with buttress-like projection at its sides, than it would in the final painting. The crest of the Lambertini, the aristocratic Bolognese family into which the pope was born, surmounts the monument. The actual bier was a form of ephemeral architecture, like a theatre set, built for the funeral only, to be disassembled and removed when the ceremonies were over. It may be, therefore, that Robert made his drawing before the catafalque was completed and he was forced to imagine some of the elements still under construction. In any event, Marianne Roland Michel has demonstrated that the catafalque was no fantasy of the artist (as has been suggested, see Rosenberg & Cuzin, op. cit.), citing a contemporary account of the funeral in the Diario ordinario, detailing the pedestals at the corners of the bier "painted in 'antique green', and of the catafalque pedestal, decorated with bas-reliefs and topped by a pyramid of granite, with a historicized, winged cartouche," precisely as Robert renders it in his evocative painting.