View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
This view is one of only two watercolour studies of Tivoli dating from Turner’s 1819 tour of Italy, and represents the northern tip of the town seen from the lower slopes of Monte Catillo. The artist’s viewpoint appears to be a point on present-day Via Quintilio Varo, the road which skirts the end of valley to the north-east. The town lies across the brow of a promontory of land at the top and visible in the centre of Tivoli is the so-called Temple of Vesta, a circular edifice dating from the first century BC which stands on the edge of the gorge. Immediately to the left is the Ponte San Rocco, a wooden bridge which spanned the precipitous drop near the former falling point of the ‘Grand Cascade’ of the River Aniene, whilst adjacent on the right is the so-called Temple of the Sibyl, a rectangular ruin which until the end of the nineteenth century was incorporated within the Church of San Giorgio. In the bottom right-hand corner of the composition, the river winds west towards Rome and the flat, open plain of the Campagna. Half-way up the slopes above, Turner has just started to define the long, low buildings of the convent of San Antonio, also known as the Villa d’Orazio (Villa of Horace).
It has been suggested in the past that Turner’s Tivoli watercolours do not apparently derive from any specific sketches and were therefore possibly executed on the spot.1 However, there are, in fact, a large number of related views taken from various points at the end of valley, in the Tivoli and Rome sketchbook (Tate D15000–D15005, and D15092; Turner Bequest 40–42a and 86a), and in the Tivoli sketchbook (Tate D15468, D15488, D15500–D15502; Turner Bequest CLXXXIII 2, 22, 33–5). A more detailed study of the town from the same viewpoint can also be seen on another page within this sketchbook (see Tate D16118; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 30). Furthermore, the composition is also similar to that of an early oil painting, Tivoli and the Roman Campagna circa 1798 (Tate, N05512),2 which was itself based upon a version of a picture by the eighteenth-century Welsh artist, Richard Wilson (1713–1782), for example, Temple of the Sibyl and the Roman Campagna circa 1765–70 (Tate, T01706). As Cecilia Powell has discussed, there is no evidence that the artist actually painted in the open air during his time in Italy. Several contemporary sources testify that his preference was for drawing on the spot and for colouring indoors away from the motif, since it took up ‘too much time to colour in the open-air’ and ‘he could make 15 or 16 pencil sketches to one colored’.3 It seems more likely therefore, that the basic outline of the composition was first sketched in pencil, possibly on-the-spot, and that the watercolour was added later from memory.4
Butlin, Wilton and Gage 1974, p.88 under no.218.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.44.
Letter to John Soane from his son, 15 November 1819, quoted in Powell 1987, p.50.
Powell 1984, p.175 and Powell 1987, p.78.
John Ruskin, Catalogue of the Drawings and Sketches by J.M.W. Turner at Present Exhibited in the National Gallery, Orpington 1881, in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.), vol.XIII, p.379.