Joseph Mallord William Turner

Arch of Titus and the Forum, Rome, from the Via Sacra


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 229 × 368 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 43

Catalogue entry

The subject of this sketch is a view of the Roman Forum taken from the Via Sacra looking towards the eastern façade of the Arch of Titus. Turner would have been standing with his back towards the Colosseum. Visible in the background is the bell-tower of the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline Hill, whilst on the far right-hand side is San Lorenzo in Miranda, a seventeenth-century church which incorporates the classical portico of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background and Turner has created areas of pale highlights by scratching through to the white paper beneath.
Turner made a large number of studies of the Arch of Titus, a triumphal monument erected to commemorate the sack of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in the first century AD. During the early nineteenth century, the integrity of the structure was disrupted by the remains of medieval stone walls and unsightly accumulations of rubble abutting the sides. These were cleared in the early 1820s by Giuseppe Valadier (1762–1839) who restored the Arch to something approaching its original (and present) appearance. However, this sketch reflects the appearance of the Arch prior to its restoration and Turner has made a detailed record of the decorative bas-reliefs and inscription on the exterior. His transcription of the Latin text from the attic is not entirely accurate. It ought to read ‘SENATVS | POPVLVSQVE•ROMANVS | DIVO•TITO•DIVI•VESPASIANI•F | VESPASIANO•AVGVSTO [THE SENATE AND PEOPLE OF ROME DEDICATED THIS ARCH TO THE DEIFIED TITUS VESPASIANUS AUGUSTUS, SON OF THE DEIFIED VESPASIAN]’. However, Turner mistakenly copied down the third line as ‘DIVO TITO DIVESPASANVIS’.1
Turner made a number of studies of the Arch of Titus. A related composition taken from a similar viewpoint can be found in the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook (Tate D16395; Turner Bequest CXC 1), whilst a drawing depicting the western façade can be found on another sheet from this sketchbook, now detached (see Tate D16372; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 44). Finally sketches of the sculptural panels from the interior can be found in the St Peter’s sketchbook (see Tate D16191–D16192; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 18a–9). Some years later, these studies led to a finished oil painting, Forum Romanum, for Mr Soane’s Museum exhibited 1826 (Tate, N00504), which as the title suggests was intended for the gallery of the artist’s friend, the architect Sir John Soane (1753–1837).2 This sketch in particular relates to the general composition of the oil, although Turner made a number of aesthetic alterations such as reducing the size of the accretions on the side of the Arch and compressing the space to include the Basilica of Constantine on the right-hand side. It appears that the painting originally followed Turner’s erroneous transcription of the Latin text, since in a letter to Soane the artist wrote: ‘I have altered the inscription upon the Arch of Titus and it is said to be now quite right’.3 As Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy and an avid collector of antiquities, Soane would have been sensitive to Turner’s error and would have not wanted to display an image of such a famous classical ruin which was not correct in every detail.4 Ultimately, he did not accept the commission, explaining to Turner that ‘the picture did not suit the place or the place the picture. Forum Romanum, therefore, remained with the artist, and was still present in his studio upon his death.5

Nicola Moorby
July 2009

Powell 1984, p.473 note 23.
Butlin and Joll 1984, no.233.
J.M.W. Turner, letter to John Soane, [1 May 1826’, published in John Gage (ed.), Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner with an Early Diary and a Memoir by George Jones, Oxford 1980, p.98.
See Powell 1987, pp.121–2 and Helen Dorey, John Soane & J.M.W. Turner: Illuminationg a Friendship, exhibition catalogue, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 2007, p.28.
Quoted in Dorey 2007, p.28.

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