Joseph Mallord William Turner

Caligula’s Palace and Bridge

exhibited 1831

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1372 × 2464 mm
frame: 1870 × 2950 × 185 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

The theme of this painting is the decay of past glories. According to stories of ancient Rome, Emperor Caligula constructed a three-mile-long floating bridge between the towns of Puteoli and Baiae. He then crossed it on a horse. Caligula’s bridge was supposed to have been built from boats fastened together, but Turner depicted it as a solid construction. When it was first exhibited, a critic described the painting as ‘one of the most beautiful and magnificent landscapes that ever mind conceived or pencil drew’.

Gallery label, July 2020

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Catalogue entry

337. [N00512] Caligula's Palace and Bridge Exh. 1831


Canvas, 54 × 97 (137 × 246·5)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (53, ‘Caligula's Bridge’ 8'2" × 4'7 1/4"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1831 (162); R.A. 1974–5 (485, repr.).

Engr. By E. Goodall 1842.

Lit. Ruskin 1843 and 1860 (1903–12, iii, p. 241, vii, p. 431); Thornbury 1862, i, p. 319; 1877, pp. 316, 447; Hamerton 1879, p. 257; Monkhouse 1879, pp. 97–8; Bell 1901, p. 115 no. 171; Armstrong 1902, p. 219; Rawlinson ii 1913, pp. 336–7; MacColl 1920, p. 16; Whitley 1930, p. 212; Davies 1946, p. 186; Finberg 1961, pp. 326–7, 340, 386–7, 491 no. 357; Lindsay 19662, p. 49; Gage 1969, p. 103; Reynolds 1969, p. 186; Gage 1974, p. 82, pl. 19; Wilton 1979, p. 221.

Exhibited in 1831 with the following lines attributed to Turner's Fallacies of Hope (here quoted from Turner's own list of his 1831 exhibits, now in the Tate Gallery archive):

‘What now remains of all the mighty Bridge
Which made the Lucrine Lake an inner pool,
Caligula, but massy fragments left,
As monuments of doubt and ruind hopes
Yet gleaming in the Morning's ray, doth tell
How Baia's shore was loved in times gone by?’

MS. Fallacies of Hope.

In the printed catalogue ‘doth’, in the fifth line, was replaced by ‘that’, and there were changes in capitalisation, etc. Turner's original title, number 2 on the list of his 1831 R.A. exhibits in the Tate Gallery archives, was also slightly altered: originally it read ‘Caligula: Palace and Bridge’.

In this picture Turner returns to the theme of Bay of Baiae (No. 230 [N00505]), the decay of past glories. Caligula's bridge crossed the three and a half Roman miles from Baiae to Puteoli and was described by Oliver Goldsmith as ‘the most notorious instance of his fruitless profusions’. It was built to confute a prophecy that Caligula would no more become Emperor than he could drive his chariot across the Bay of Baiae. Although the bridge was in fact a bridge of boats Turner followed popular accounts in showing it as a solid structure (see Gage 1974, p. 47).

Unlike Vision of Medea, exhibited the same year (No. 293 [N00513]), this picture seems to have aroused universal praise. ‘In this picture “the fit hath gone off”’ said the Athenaeum for 14 May 1831; ‘Here we have the poetry of nature lavished upon us with a courteous hand’. La Belle Assemblée described it, in its June number, as ‘one of the most magnificent and extraordinary productions of the day ... it is poetry itself. The air-tint—the distances—are magical: for brilliancy and depth, and richness, and power, it can hardly be surpassed.’ For The Times of 6 May it was ‘one of the most beautiful and magnificent landscapes that ever mind conceived or pencil drew.’ The Library of the Fine Arts for June 1831, anticipating Ruskin's criticisms of these packed Italian landscapes as ‘nonsense pictures’, described it more positively as ‘a composition, any one portion of which is in itself a picture, and would make the fortune of another artist.’

Turner's picture hung next to Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (Coll: the Dowager Lady Ashton). ‘Fire and Water’, the Literary Gazette for 14 May exclaimed. ‘Exaggerated, however, as both these works are,—the one all heat, the other all humidity,— who will deny that they both exhibit, each in its way, some of the highest qualities of art? None but the envious or ignorant.’ Apparently Constable, who was on the Hanging Committee that year, had moved Turner's picture and replaced it with his own, for which Turner teased him unmercifully at dinner with General Phipps in Mount Street, to the great amusement of the party, mainly artists (the story is David Roberts's, given in Thornbury 1862, ii, p. 56, and dated to this year by Finberg 1961, p. 327).

The picture was engraved in 1842 by E. Goodall, whose son told W.G. Rawlinson (ii 1913, pp. 336–7) that Turner, deciding that the composition required more figures, added them on the picture itself, first with white chalk, and then, when Goodall was unable to follow these slight sketches, in watercolour. According to Thornbury, who, however, asserts that the figures were introduced, with Turner's assent, by Goodall, they were the children playing with goats in the foreground (1862, i, p. 319). Recent restoration, however, has failed to determine that any of the figures as they now are were painted in watercolour; perhaps Turner went over them later in oils.

The picture was transferred from its original canvas onto a new one, probably in 1907, at which time there were extensive losses, particularly top left and top right and along a crack stretching most of the way across the picture from the left just above half-way up.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984

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