The subject of this coloured sketch is the southern (left-hand) end of the façade of St Peter’s in Rome. The great arched opening, known as the Arco delle Campane (Arch of the Bells), stands beneath the great bell of the basilica and one of two clocks designed by Valadier which crown the front of the basilica. Leading through to the Via della Sagrestia, today it is one of three main entrances to the Vatican and is permanently guarded by Swiss Guards. To the left of the composition can be seen part of the Charlemagne Wing of Bernini’s colonnade, whilst on the right are the steps leading to the doors of the basilica. A sketch depicting the view looking away from the Arco delle Campane in the opposite direction, east across St Peter’s Square, can be found in the St Peter’s sketchbook (see Tate D16227; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 40a).
The composition of Turner’s watercolour is designed to convey a sense of overwhelming size and grandeur symbolising, not only the physical presence of St Peter’s, but also the power and majesty of Rome and the Catholic church.1 The perceived immensity of the building is enhanced by the presence of the three tiny figures in the foreground, whom Cecilia Powell has described as a ‘lone cleric approaching St Peter’s, a minute slip of a contadina and a solitary loafer on its steps’.2 Andrew Wilton has argued that despite the dramatic ‘Piranesian’ sense of scale and the stylistic similarities to Italian souvenir views by artists such as Giovanni Volpato (1723–1803) or Carlo Lebruzzi (1748–1817), Turner’s vision of St Peter’s is entirely original and fresh.3 Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the view has been executed over a washed grey background which the artist has further worked up with watercolour and gouache.
Blank; inscribed by unknown hands in pencil ‘6’ centre and ‘CLXXXIX.6 bottom right, and stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 6’ bottom centre.