Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Colosseum, Rome, by Moonlight


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour, bodycolour and graphite on paper
Support: 232 x 369 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 13

Catalogue entry

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 looking from the western end towards the higher section of surviving wall on the opposite side. Visible at various intervals around the perimeter of the central arena are some of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, built in 1750 after Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the building to the memory of the early Christians who were martyred there. The choice of viewpoint is similar to that by John ‘Warwick’ Smith, Internal view of the Coliseum from Select Views in Italy, copied by Turner in the Italian Guide Book sketchbook (see Tate D13966; Turner Bequest CLXXII 19, top right). Further sketches of the interior can be found within the Rome: C. Studies sketchbook (D16380 and D16389; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 51 and 58), and within the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook (see Tate D16414, D16420, D16451; Turner Bequest CXC 14a, 18, 38).
See Moorby 2008, p.115.
John Chetwode Eustace, A Classical Tour Through Italy, London 1815, 3rd edition, vol.I, pp.374–5.
Ibid., p.375.
Shanes 1998, p.4.
Venning 2003, p.[160].
See for example Wilton 1982, pp.23–4, Holcomb 1983, p.52, Powell 1987, p.16, Liversidge and Edwards 1996, p.77, and Cecilia Powell’s reply to Shanes 1998, p.4.
J.W. Goethe, Italian Journey, 1786–1788, W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (trans.), Middlesex and Victoria 1962,p.168.
Marianna Stark, Travels in Europe, 9th edition, London 1836, p.219.
Ibid., p.134.
See Richard Wilson, The Colosseum by moonlight, reproduced in Raymond Keaveney, Views of Rome from the Thomas Ashby Collection in the Vatican Library, exhibition catalogue, Smithsonian Institution, Washington 1988, p.[127].
H.W. Williams, Travels in Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands, vol.I, Edinburgh 1820, pp.299–302. See Gage 1987 p.60.
Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, The Colosseum, London 2005, p.3.
Quoted in Blayney Brown 192, p.129.
Powell 1998, p.33.
Thomas Cole, Notes at Naples, 1832, quoted in Keaveney 1988, p.126.

Nicola Moorby
October 2009

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