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This sketch represents an unusual view of St Peter’s Square taken from the southern end of the steps of St Peter’s. The central focus is the Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula and moved to its current position in the middle of the piazza on the orders of Pope Sixtus V in 1586, whilst to the right is the statue of St Peter holding the keys of Rome. As the artist has indicated, three flights of seven stairs lead from the piazza to the portico of the basilica and Turner’s viewpoint is from the bottom of these steps, standing outside the Arco delle Campane (Arch of Bells) in between the façade of St Peter’s and the Charlemagne Wing of Bernini’s colonnade. A coloured study depicting this location can be found in the Roman Colour Studies sketchbook (see Tate D16332; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 6).
The sketch, which is inverted on the page, probably followed a drawing of the interior of the portico of St Peter’s on folio 17 verso (D16189). Turner would have left the basilica from the southern end of the atrium and would immediately have been in position for the view from the bottom of the steps looking across the square. The two drawings represent an example of Turner’s sporadic sketchbook use. They were almost certainly executed in immediate succession and yet appear at separate, random points within the book amidst sequences of unrelated subjects. For a full description of Turner’s studies of St Peter’s see the Introduction to the sketchbook.