J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Interior of the Colosseum, Rome 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 51 Recto:
Interior of the Colosseum, Rome 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 51
Pencil and grey watercolour wash on white wove ‘Valleyfield’ paper, 229 x 368 mm
Inscribed by an unknown hand in pencil ‘51’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 51’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Arguably the most famous of all the surviving monuments of classical Rome is the Flavian Amphitheatre, a huge building universally known as the Colosseum, which stands at the eastern end of the Roman Forum between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Built between 72–80 AD., the immense ruin was as popular with tourists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it is today and its crumbling but impressive remains represented a constant source of inspiration for artists. Turner’s 1819 sketches demonstrate that he studied the Colosseum from a variety of viewpoints both inside and outside the celebrated structure.1 He had read John Chetwode Eustace’s book, A Classical Tour Through Italy, which stated that ‘Never did human art present to the eye a fabric so well calculated by its size and form, to surprise and delight’ (see the Italian Guide Book sketchbook, Tate D13943; Turner Bequest CLXXII 7).2 Eustace recommended viewing the building first from the north, and then the south before finally entering its ‘lofty arcades’ to consider the ‘vast mass of ruin ... insulated walls, immense stones suspended in the air, arches covered with weeds and shrubs, vaults opening upon other ruins ... in short, above, below, and around, one vast collection of magnificence and devastation, of grandeur and decay’.3
This sketch depicts a view of the western end of the interior from the main floor of the arena. Turner’s choice of viewpoint shows the three levels of the ‘cavea’, or terraced seating, rising on the right-hand side to the surviving top storey punctuatued with windows. Visible in the right-hand foreground, and at various intervals around the perimeter, are some of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, built in 1750 after Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the building to the memory of the early Christians who were martyred there. Turner’s treatment of the interior recalls earlier eighteenth-century models such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etched plates for the Vedute di Roma.4 Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed in pencil over a washed grey background.
For another view of the interior of the Colosseum see another page from this sketchbook (Tate D16339; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 13), and also for further sketches of the building generally (see D16349; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 23).
See Moorby 2009, p.115.
John Chetwode Eustace, A Classical Tour Through Italy, London 1815, 3rd edition, vol.I, pp.374–5.
Ibid., p.375.
See for example Luigi Ficacci, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Köln and London 2000, nos.949 and 997, pp.729 and 755.
Blank except for traces of grey watercolour wash; stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 51’ bottom left.

Nicola Moorby
July 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Interior of the Colosseum, Rome 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, July 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-interior-of-the-colosseum-rome-r1132438, accessed 19 April 2018.