This picture was for many years thought to depict a scene near Pozzuoli, looking across the lake to the island of Ischia. However, on the back of a related chalk drawing, now in the British Museum (Department of Prints and Drawings), Wilson described the view as 'The Lake of Avernus, Monte Nuovo, Island of Capra, & Part of Baya'. The viewpoint in both the drawing and the painting is taken from the north shore of Lake Avernus. In the mid-ground, at the left of the lake, is the ruin of a Roman bath, then thought to be the Temple of Apollo. Rising up behind is the Monte Nuovo. Beyond the lake, towards the right, can be glimpsed the Gulf of Pozzuoli, dotted with sailing craft. On the horizon lies the island of Capri and, at the extreme right, the peninsula of Baiae.
Wilson travelled to Italy in 1750, remaining there until 1756, or possibly 1757. The drawing referred to above was made by Wilson in Italy, probably sometime between 1754 and 1756. The painting, however, has been dated on stylistic grounds to around 1760, by which time Wilson was working in London.
Lake Avernus is situated near Cumae, to the northwest of Naples. It lies among the Phlegraean ('Burning') Fields, a volcanic terrain, which according to classical mythology was identified with the underworld, or 'Hades'. The entrance to Hades lay in a nearby grotto inhabited by the prophetess, Deiphobe, the Cumaean Sibyl. In The Aeneid, the celebrated epic poem by Virgil (70-19 BC), which tells the legend of the founding of the Roman nation, the Sibyl assists the Trojan prince, Aeneas, to enter Hades, where his father's ghost foretells his destiny as the founder of the Roman nation. As David Solkin has noted, this, and other associated legends, ensured that Avernus was a major attraction for Grand Tourists and landscape artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Solkin, p.203).
Wilson's viewpoint in the present picture is close to the entrance to the grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl, looking towards the so-called Temple of Apollo. As Robin Hamlyn has stated, 'Wilson appears to reinforce the historical association with Apollo, the Sun God to whom, on first landing in Italy, Aeneas vowed to build a temple, by showing the sun setting behind this "temple"' (Hamlyn, p.65).
The early history of the picture is unknown. David Solkin has suggested that it may have been the view of 'Avernus' bought by the banker Henry Hoare (1705-85) from Wilson in 1760, and which Hoare displayed in his country seat at Stourhead, Wiltshire. Certainly, this would have been an appropriate environment for Wilson's picture since Hoare had constructed at Stourhead a magnificent classically inspired landscaped garden, complete with a grotto and lake.
The first recorded owner of the picture was Sir John Pringle, at whose sale Sir Richard Vernon (1774-1849) acquired it in 1843. The picture was presented to the National Gallery in 1847 by Vernon and subsequently transferred to the Tate Gallery.
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, p.203, no.90, reproduced
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon's gift. British Art for the Nation 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1993, p.65