View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Arguably the most famous of all the surviving monuments of classical Rome is the Flavian Amphitheatre, a huge building universally known as the Colosseum, which stands at the eastern end of the Roman Forum between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Built 72–80 AD., the immense ruin was as popular with tourists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it is today and its crumbling but impressive remains represented a constant source of inspiration for artists. Turner’s 1819 sketches demonstrate that he studied the Colosseum from a variety of viewpoints both inside and outside the celebrated structure.1 He had read John Chetwode Eustace’s book, A Classical Tour Through Italy, which stated that ‘Never did human art present to the eye a fabric so well calculated by its size and form, to surprise and delight’ (see the Italian Guide Book sketchbook, Tate D13943; Turner Bequest CLXXII 7).2 Eustace recommended viewing the building first from the north, and then the south before finally entering its ‘lofty arcades’ to consider the ‘vast mass of ruin ... insulated walls, immense stones suspended in the air, arches covered with weeds and shrubs, vaults opening upon other ruins ... in short, above, below, and around, one vast collection of magnificence and devastation, of grandeur and decay’.3
This sketch depicts a view of the interior seen through a ground floor arch. Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner has used the page vertically in portrait format in order to capture a sense of the full height of the arena and its successive storeys of arcades. A further sense of scale is introduced by the small robed figure kneeling in prayer in the foreground and one of the altars to the fourteen Stations of the Cross visible in the centre. In 1750, Pope Benedict XIV had consecrated the building to the memory of the early Christians who were martyred there and the ruins became a site for Catholic worship.