Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

1750 or 1751-1814

57 The Devastation of the Earthquake at Messina, Sicily: The Palazzata c.1783-88

Brown ink and ink and watercolour wash over pencil on laid paper 26.5 x 41.1 (10 3/8 x 16 1/8) mounted on laid paper support 37.4 x 52.2 (14 3/4 x 20 1/2) with artist's washline border
Inscribed in ink below the border 'Devastation of the | EARTHQUAKE | at | MESSINA'


Tresham was born in Dublin where, from 1765, he studied at the Dublin Society's drawing school. In 1775 he passed through London on the way to Rome where he had arrived by September 1775. His patron on this Italian trip which lasted until about March 1788 (Allen 1996, no.32) appears to have been the MP John Campbell, later Lord Cawdor (c.1753-1821); this drawing and two others in the Opp? collection which also show Messina after the earthquake (T08263 and T08264) came from his collection.

After he returned to London, Tresham distinguished himself as a history painter, and it was undoubtedly with such a career in mind that he, like so many of his contemporaries, went to study in Rome. So the chief object of his study during the Italian years was inevitably the Antique - just as it had been with, for example, Richard Dalton (no.14). However, this by no means precluded seeking out and relishing landscape, particularly landscapes rich in historical associations, and Tresham's earthquake drawings are a good example of how such a sensibility could be dramatically stimulated by actual events: Tresham accompanied Thomas Jones (nos.43-5) and William Pars (nos.46-7) on their sketching trips around Rome including the volcanic landscape of Lake Albano and its vicinity which had prompted Jones to muse not only on its classical associations but also on its 'Awful marks of the most tremendous Convulsions of nature in the remotest Ages' (Jones, Memoirs, pp.55,58-9).

Just as the continually smoking Vesuvius (nos.21, 92) was a constant reminder of the destruction of Pompeii in AD 79, so the great earthquake which shook southern Italy on 5 February 1783 and devastated parts of Calabria and Sicily uniquely brought modern spectators into direct contact with a similarly apocalyptic moment. In reporting immediately back to London from Naples Sir William Hamilton wrote of boiling seas and shifting mountains, and that in Messina 'the superb building, called the Palazzata, which gave the port a more magnificent appearance than any port in Europe can boast of, had been entirely ruined', concluding that 'in short ... Messina was no more' (Annual Register for 1785, pp.50-1). Members of the Naples Academy, together with some draughtsmen, went to collect and record the facts of the disaster (Annual Register, p.56). Hoping to be a witness to these great events, Thomas Jones offered his services as a draughtsman free to Hamilton when in April 1783 he set off to look at the earthquake damage in Calabria, but Hamilton declined the offer (Jones, Memoirs, p.122).

Tresham appears to have been the only British artist to travel to Sicily and make a true record of the devastation. His views inevitably recall, for example, some of the engravings of the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra which appeared in Wood and Dawkins's The Ruins of Palmyra (1753), or those of Greek ruins published by Le Roy (see under no.63) and it seems quite reasonable to assume that, along with his awareness of Pompeii, a parallel between the fates of ancient and modern civilisations was very much in Tresham's mind when he sat among the ruins sketching. In this drawing, just visible in the distance on the quayside and an intact survivor, is one of Messina's most famous monuments, the Fountain of Neptune of 1557 by the sculptor G.A. Montorsoli. When the German writer J.W. Goethe visited Messina in May 1787 he described it as an 'accursed city' and commented that 'there can be no more dreary sight in the world than the so-called Palazzata ... which now looks revoltingly gap-toothed and pierced with holes' (J.W. Goethe, London 1962, p.289)

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.150 no.57, reproduced in colour p.151