Joseph Mallord William Turner Trajan’s Column and Forum, Rome 1819

Artwork details

Artist
Title
Trajan’s Column and Forum, Rome
From St Peter's Sketchbook
Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII
Date 1819
Medium Graphite on paper
Dimensions Support: 114 x 189 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D16241
Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 48
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Catalogue entry

This is a view of the Forum of Trajan in Rome looking up towards the Column of Trajan, one of Rome’s most celebrated antiquities. Turner’s viewpoint is amidst the ruins of the Basilica Ulpia, the main hall of the Forum. Many of the remaining ruined columns can be seen in the foreground. On the right-hand side is the doorway of the Church of Santissimo Nome di Maria (Holy Name of Mary) with the Church of Santa Maria di Loreto just visible beyond. The buildings in the background represent part of the Capitoline Hill which was destroyed during the late nineteenth century to make way for ‘Il Vittoriano’, a massive monument built between 1885–1911 and dedicated to Victor Emmanuel, the first king of unified Italy. These include the medieval Torre di Paolo III (Tower of Paul III), visible in the centre.1
The main subject of the sketch is Trajan’s Column, a free-standing marble Roman column approximately forty metres high decorated with spiral bas-reliefs commemorating the victory of the Emperor Trajan in the Dacian wars (AD 101–2 and 105–6). Turner’s drawing shows the monument from the east, with the doorway of the viewing platform visible at the top. He has not attempted to depict the sculptured scenes on the shaft but he has noted where narrow windows punctuate its length. The restricted size of the sketchbook page has forced him to record the statue of St Peter’s which tops the column, separately the side.
Another representation of the Column of Trajan from a different angle can be found in the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (Tate D15363; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 36a). Turner also used detailed watercolour diagrams of the monument during his lectures on perspective at the Royal Academy (see Tate D17121, D17123 and D17124; Turner Bequest CXCV 150, 152 and 153). These predate the artist’s first trip to Rome and would have almost certainly been painted from a plaster-cast copy of the original. They depict sections of the column at the top and bottom and demonstrate the problems of representing the distortion of sculptural features when viewed from below.

Nicola Moorby
September 2008

1
Ashby 1914, p.103. Compare Giuseppe Vasi’s engraving of the Piazza di San Marco, 1754, see http://www.romeartlover.it/Vasi65.htm, accessed September 2008.

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