Exhibition catalogue text
32 Monte Cavo 1781
Watercolour with pen and ink 246 x 385 (9 5/8 x 15 1/8)
Signed, lower right, No 53. Francis Towne del.1781.
Inscribed, verso, Italy No 53. The Spot where Hannibal is said to have lookd at Rome from. Drawn by Francis Towne on the spot 1781.
Prov: Anon sale, Foster's, 27 July 1910 (151), bt P.Opp?; by descent to 1996; when acquired by Tate Gallery (T08559).
Exh: Sheffield 1952 (60); Royal Academy 1958 (90); Ottawa 1961 (84). Lit: Bury 1962, p.145; Hardie 1966, I, p.120.
Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the National Lottery Fund 1996
Towne's two watercolours of Monte Cavo represent a major landmark among his Italian work. The highest peak in the Alban Hills is depicted with utmost simplicity in both images, but especially in the second, fig.31, numbered '54' and bearing a similar inscription to the first. There is little but its carefully shaped profile and dense green surface, punctuated by soft creases as it rises to the summit; beyond other shapes echo it but cannot match its sense of austere gravity. The subtlety of the colouration and virtual absence of any intrusive line further mark these works out as among the most painterly, the least graphic, of Towne's entire oeuvre. The paintings possess the same directness, the same complete absence of visual artifice that Thomas Jones attained in his little oil sketches of Naples which were made in the following year, 1782. This was also the year in which Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes returned to Rome from Paris and chose Monte Cavo as the subject for several open-air oil sketches. These are generally regarded as the first attempt to record changing effects of light in the sky and on land purely for their own sake (see Arts Council 1980, nos.27-8). No direct connection between Valenciennes and Jones has ever been established, still less between the Frenchman and Towne; among the many intertwined networks of artists in Rome there was obviously an agreement none the less on the particular visual qualities of Monte Cavo, with its steep wooded slopes offering all students of landscape an uninterrupted expanse of lush colour, and its cap attracting cloud, mist and a turbulent array of lighting effects.
For all the visual purity of the image Towne remained anchored within his own time when it came to the inscription. His reference to 'the spot where Hannibal is said to have lookd at Rome from' shows him adopting the attitude to Italian travel first established by Joseph Addison in his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, published in 1705, and prevalent for the rest of the century, where the present was viewed in terms of the classical past. After crossing the Alps in 218 BC, Hannibal and his armies remained on Italian soil for sixteen years; they won many victories and severely threatened the Roman Republic, without ever succeeding in capturing Rome itself. Hannibal withdrew, undefeated, to Carthage when the Romans launched a counter-offensive there in 202 BC. There may be more than convention, however, in Towne's connection of Hannibal with these images of Monte Cavo. The pristine, uncultivated landscape Towne depicted was as much the antithesis to the architectural splendour of ancient Rome as Hannibal was the arch-enemy of the Republic's security. The inscription evoked unfulfilled longing and, ultimately, defeat for Hannibal, but for Towne to do this in the context of a landscape completely untainted by any signs of civilisation, Roman or otherwise, may suggest that his sympathies lay rather with the warring outsider than with the dominant power. Towne's work had consistently given priority to the country over the city, the natural over the overtly civilised. Stylistically Towne's treatment of Monte Cavo looked forward to the imagery he was shortly to paint with such originality in the Alps; his inscription on this watercolour may offer a clue to the emotions which enabled him to capture their remote grandeur and solemnity with such memorable force.
Timothy Wilcox, Francis Towne, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.82-4 no.32, reproduced in colour p.85