This picture, which is one of several similar versions of the subject by Wilson, depicts a view of the ruins of the villa of Maecenas, Tivoli, from the gorge of the Anio. At the centre, at the brow of the hill, is the so-called Villa di Mecenate or Tempio di Ercole Vincitore. To the right, lower down the slope is the small rounded Temple of the Dea Tussis, dedicated to the Roman god of coughing.
Richard Wilson visited Italy between 1750 and 1756 or 1757. According to a memorandum made by the original owner of another version of this picture (formerly in the collection of Sir Brinsley Ford collection), the composition was based upon a drawing made by Wilson at Tivoli in April 1754, in the presence of the tenth Earl of Pembroke (1734-94), the fourth Earl of Essex (1732-99), Viscount Bolingbroke (1734-87) and the eighth Earl of Thanet (1733-86). The memorandum, apparently based upon Wilson's own account, stated that the company had 'dined and spent the Day together on the Spot under a Large Tree' (quoted in Constable, pp.34-5). Lord Thanet apparently commissioned the present picture, while Lord Pembroke went on to commission several views of Wilton House.
According to Joseph Farington (1747-1821), who became Wilson's pupil in June 1763, the present picture 'was begun in Italy, and finished in England', suggesting that it was completed around 1757-8 (see Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre and Kathryn Cave eds., The Diary of Joseph Farington, 16 vols., New Haven and London 1978-84, vol. 1, p.214). A chalk drawing, which relates to the present picture, belongs to Tate (T09285). A second related drawing, which provides a closer view of the Villa, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is not known whether either of these drawings relates to that mentioned in the memorandum noted above.
Maecenas, the ruins of whose villa feature prominently in the present picture, was among the most celebrated patrons of the arts in classical Rome, supporting Horace and Virgil among others. His name was also a byword for luxury and indulgence. By the eighteenth century, as David Solkin has observed, Maecenas's villa represented at once the zenith of Roman culture and the seeds of its decline. As Solkin states: 'the well-read contemporary viewer could read a moral lesson: though we must take heed of the tragic example of Rome, we must also preserve her great cultural heritage' (Solkin, p.192).
Wilson's composition in the present picture is based upon the classical landscapes of Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), mediated here possibly by the example of Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89), whose recent paintings of the Falls at Tivoli Wilson would have known well. Like Gaspard Dughet and Vernet before him, Wilson has departed from the actual topography of the landscape before him. Indeed, as Solkin notes, the entire foreground and middle-ground have been invented by Wilson, the Villa and the Temple of the Dea Tussis being situated on a much lower slope than they occupy in reality (Solkin, p. 192).
In 1794 Lord Thanet's son sold the picture to Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827), who had himself made a number of accomplished on-the-spot drawings at Tivoli in the spring of 1783. As Beaumont's agent, Joseph Farington, noted at the time, 'the pictures of Wilson are getting into great request at comparatively high prices' (The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol.1, p.214).
In 1806 Beaumont lent Distant View of Maecenas' Villa, Tivoli to the British Institution so that young artists could copy it (The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol.8, p.2834). Two years later, he removed it to Coleorton Hall, his country seat in Leicestershire There Beaumont installed a large boulder, similar to the one in the foreground of the present picture. 'Just as he had earlier erected a cenotaph to Reynolds's memory', it has been stated, 'this was Beaumont's way of commemorating Wilson, another important influence on his art and ideas' (National Gallery, p.60). In 1828, Beaumont presented the picture, together with fifteen others from his collection, to the newly founded National Gallery. It was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1955.
W.G.Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, pp. 34-5, pp. 225-6
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, p.192
'Noble and Patriotic'. The Beaumont Gift 1828, National Gallery, London 1988, pp.60-61, reproduced in colour