This is one of several versions of the same subject painted by Wilson, in the years following his return from Italy in 1756 or 1757. Wilson referred to compositions such as the present one, which he repeated over and again, as 'good breeders' (Constable, p.58), indicating their popularity and commercial success.
The origins of the present composition appear to lie in a related painting (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), which (according to an inscription on the reverse) was one of two works painted in 1752 for the Irish collector and Grand Tourist Joseph Henry (1727-96). This work, also entitled Tivoli: the Temple of the Sibyl and the Campagna, differs principally from the Tate picture in its much larger size and the arrangement of the figures in the foreground, which include the figure of an artist with an easel. Wilson may in turn have based this painting upon a chalk drawing, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Constable, plate 116a). The drawing, which includes several figures sheltering beneath a large parasol, was undoubtedly made on the spot, probably sometime between Wilson's arrival in Rome towards the end of 1751 and 1752.
The present picture, in common with other known versions, depicts a view across the gorge of the river Aniene (or 'Anio'), to the Roman 'Campagna', or plain, and the distant city of Rome to the south-west. At the left, perched on the cliff edge, is a small cluster of ancient buildings. These include the circular Roman Temple of Vesta (converted in the Middle Ages to a church), and the rectangular Temple of the Tiburtine Sibyl, which by the eighteenth century served as the church of San Giorgio.
By the first century BC, Tivoli (the classical town of Tibur), was a noted resort for Rome's wealthier citizens, who built lavish villas and temples to their most revered deities. It was particularly beloved by the emperor Augustus (63 B.C.- A.D.14) and by the poet Horace (65 B.C.-A.D.8). During the Renaissance Tivoli was the residence of Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, who built a magnificent villa and surrounding gardens, which continue to attract visitors today.
Although Wilson was guided by the splendour of the natural scenery in composing his various paintings of Tivoli and the Temple of the Sibyl, his carefully planned compositions also relied upon the classical landscape paintings made a century earlier by Claude Lorrain (1600-82) and Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), as well as more recent artists such as Jan Frans van Bloemen ('l'Orizzonte') (1662-1749) and Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89). It has been suggested that Wilson's own view of Tivoli and the Temple of the Sibyl may have been influenced by van Bloemen's painting of the same subject of about 1710-20 (David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, p.183, fig. 18).
Wilson exhibited versions of the present composition twice during his career, first at the Society of Artists in 1763, and again at the Royal Academy in 1777, both pictures being described in the exhibition catalogue as 'A View from Tivoli, towards Rome'. The early history of the present picture in unknown. By the late nineteenth century it belonged to the American collector P A B Widener of Philadelphia. It returned to England in the early years of the twentieth century, and was purchased in 1936 by Sir William Collingwood, in whose family it remained until 1973, when it was accepted by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue from the Collingwood family and transferred to the Tate Gallery.
W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, pp.222-3, p.115a