Joseph Mallord William Turner

Aosta, for Rogers’s ‘Italy’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 239 × 302 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 145

Display caption

In 1826 the poet Samuel Rogers commissioned Turner to make the twenty-five watercolours which were engraved as the head- or tail-pieces of the 1830 edition of his poem 'Italy'. In these vignettes Turner balances a desire to illustrate the modern Italy he recalled from his visit of 1819 with the poetry of ancient Italy which overflowed from its art and ruined monuments. The Turner Bequest contains most of the original watercolours as well as a number of related, but unpublished, designs, such as the view of the Ponte Vecchio. Turner completed the project with the imaginary view of an Italian lake, made between breakfast and lunchtime at Petworth House in 1827.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

This vignette, engraved by Henry le Keux, is one of two designs that Turner made to illustrate the seventh section of Rogers’s Italy, entitled ‘Marguerite de Tours.’1 In this section, Rogers tells the story of the eponymous heroine, who grew up in the Val d’Aosta but eloped with a young man from Martigny, a town located on the opposite side of the Great St Bernard Pass:
She was born
(Such was her artless tale, told with fresh tears)
In Val d’Aosta; and an Alpine stream,
Leaping from crag to crag in its short course
To join the Dora, turned her father’s mill.
There did she blossom till a Valaisan,
A townsman of Martigny, won her heart,
Much to the old man’s grief. Long he refused,
Loth to be left; disconsolate at the thought.
She was his only one, his link to life;
And in despair – year after year gone by –
One summer-morn, they stole a match and fled.
The act was sudden; and when far away,
her spirit had misgivings. Then, full oft,
She pictured to herself that aged face
Sickly and wan, in sorrow, not in wrath;
And, when at last she heard his hour was near,
Went forth unseen, and, burdened as she was,
Crossed the high Alps on foot to ask forgiveness,
And hold him to her heart before he died.
(Italy, p.27)
Although Marguerite herself does not figure in either of Turner’s illustrations the book’s layout dramatises her movement between the two towns: the section opens with Aosta as its headpiece and closes with a view of Martigny (see Tate D27671; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 154). When the narrator encounters Marguerite, she has returned to Italy to make peace with her dying father and is now beginning her arduous journey back across the Alps.
Situated at the foot of the Great St Bernard Pass, Aosta is a Roman city that has long occupied a key position for European trade and travel. Part of the city’s surviving Roman walls and the magnificent triumphal Arch of Augustus, built in 25 BC, are visible in the foreground. Turner visited Aosta himself during his 1802 trip to the Continent, producing several sketches that may have served him when he designed this vignette over two decades later (see Tate D04502 and D04503; Turner Bequest LXXIV 10 and LXXIV 11).2 Although he may well have referred to these sketches, he also made significant changes to the topography of the city in order to include a number of landmarks in the small space provided. Most notably he added walls to both sides of the arch of Augustus and turned the triple-arched form of the decaying Roman theatre ninety degrees.3 In producing the Italy vignettes, it was not uncommon for Turner to generate a condensed and evocative, if not entirely accurate portrait of a subject that he had previously observed and sketched first-hand. As Cecilia Powell writes, ‘the reason that the Italy illustrations were so popular with generations of English travellers and Italy lovers was not their topographical accuracy (which was in any case variable) ... It was Turner’s poetical concentration of the essence of Italy into the space of a few inches.’ 4
Samuel Rogers, Italy, London 1830, p.25; W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. vol.II, London 1913, no.354. There are two impressions in Tate’s collection (T04640 and T04641).
Warrell 1991, p.53.
Hill 1992, p.84.
Powell 1983, p.6.
Eric M. Lee, Translations: Turner and Printmaking, exhibition catalogue, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven 1993, p.8.
Warrell 1991, p.53.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

Read full Catalogue entry

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