The present picture is one of Wilson's most ambitious early Italian landscapes, painted three years after his arrival in Italy in 1750. It depicts one of the most celebrated views of Rome from the Janiculum Hill ('Mons Janiculus') in Trastevere. In the foreground is a classically dressed couple and, to the left, in shadows, a solitary cowherd. The prospect takes in the landscape to the north dominated, to the left of centre, by the Vatican, with the dome of St. Peter's and the Campagna beyond. On the horizon, to the right, is Mount Soracte.
The composition is carefully orchestrated according to the example of the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain (1600-82), both in terms of the tonal range - with marked juxtapositions of dark and light areas - and the arrangement of the foreground figures. It has also been suggested by David Solkin that Wilson was influenced by the Roman landscapes of Jan Frans van Bloemen ('l'Orizzonte') (1662-1749), 'many of whose works incorporate framing trees of different sizes on either side of a cluster of predominantly architectural motifs' (Solkin, p.186).
Wilson, possibly at the request of his patron, has taken particular care in the delineation of the antique sculpture in the painting's foreground, a relief representing two Maenads (female dancers associated with the cult of Dionysus) leading a bull to ritual slaughter. As Solkin has noted, Wilson probably copied the motif from a similar relief formerly in the Villa Medici and now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Rome: St Peter's and the Vatican from the Janiculum was one of a pair of pictures of Rome commissioned from Richard Wilson by one of his most important patrons in Italy, William Legge, second Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801). Its companion, Rome from the Villa Madama, now belongs to the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven. Lord Dartmouth had arrived in Rome by January 1753. There, his agent, Thomas Jenkins (1722-98), encouraged him to patronise Wilson. In addition to the two major oil paintings, Lord Dartmouth commissioned Wilson to make a series of chalk landscape drawings, numbering about sixty-eight in total. Of these drawings twenty featured views in and around Rome (see Brinsley Ford, 'The Dartmouth Collection of Drawings by Richard Wilson', The Burlington Magazine, December 1948, pp.337-45). In the spring of 1753 Wilson also accompanied Lord Dartmouth to Naples, possibly acting as his guide.
W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, p.220, plate 110a
The Tate Gallery 1974-6. Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, Tate Gallery 1978, pp.42-3
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson.The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, p.186, no.68, reproduced