View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Comparison of this sketch with an engraving by Giuseppe Vasi (1710–1782) for Book II of Sulle magnificenze di Roma Antica e Moderna (1752) reveals the subject as the former Piazza Montanara, a small but lively square which was located in between the River Tiber and the southern slopes of the Capitoline Hill. The area was demolished between 1926–32 as part of the construction of the Via del Teatro Marcello and the only building which remains today is the Theatre of Marcellus, a Roman amphitheatre built by the Emperor Augustus and incorporated into a sixteenth-century palazzo by Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1536).1 Another view of the edifice can be seen on folio 50 verso (D16244; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 49a).
Turner’s sketch adopts almost the same viewpoint as that in Vasi’s engraving.2 The curved outer wall of the Theatre of Marcellus can be seen in the centre and in the distance beyond is the dome and cupola of the Church of Santa Maria in Campitelli. In the left-hand foreground is the fountain of Piazza Montanara, a modest design by Giacomo della Porta (c.1533–1602) which was relocated during the 1920s to the Aventine Hill before being moved again to its current position in Piazzetta San Simeone, near the northern end of the Piazza Navona.
William Cadell described this district in his travel journal, A Journey in Carniola, Italy and France in the Years 1817, 1818 as ‘the place near the theatre ... called the Piazza Montanara, from the number of country people from the mountains who frequent it. This part of the city is poor, and even exceeds in filth the other parts of Rome.’3 The square was formerly used as a marketplace whilst the lower arches of the Theatre of Marcellus were also formerly used to house shops and market stalls. The blend of daily street life against the backdrop of ancient and Renaissance architecture made the piazza a quintessential Roman subject for topographical artists seeking the picturesque. In his sketch Turner has depicted the foreground thronged with people going about their business. Other views include Piranesi’s Teatro di Marcello for the Vedute di Roma (c.1749) and Luigi Rossini’s Avenzi del Teatro di Marcello Situato in Piazza Montanara from Le Antichita Romane (1821).4
Frank Sear, Roman Theatres: An Architectural Study, Oxford 2006, p.63.
William Cadell, A Journey in Carniola, Italy and France in the Years 1817, 1818, Edinburgh 1820, p.393.
Luigi Ficacci, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Köln and London 2000, no.895, reproduced p.699; see also P. Fidenzoni, Il Teatro di Marcello, Rome 1970, pp.16–17, figs 1–4.