Joseph Mallord William Turner

Four Sketches of Virgil’s Tomb on the Posillipo Hill; Also Part of a View of Naples and Vesuvius


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 113 × 189 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXV 68

Catalogue entry

The so-called tomb of the Roman poet, Virgil (70–19 BC), lies on the Posillipo Hill at the Piedigrotta entrance to the Grotto of Posillipo (known as the Crypta Neapolitana) in the present-day Parco Virgiliano. Comprised of an ancient cylindrical burial vault on a square base rising to the left of the grotto, its authenticity is unconfirmed, although Virgil’s connection with Naples is well established and his villa is said to have been located in nearby Pozzuoli. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the tomb was a popular tourist site, not only because of its classical connections but also owing to the spectacular view of the bay and Vesuvius which could be seen above it.1 Turner would certainly have been keen to visit the site. He was very familiar with Virgil’s poetry and during his career he used it as the subject for a significant number of paintings,2 including in the years preceding the 1819 Italian tour, Dido and Aeneas exhibited 1814 (Tate, N00494) and Dido Building Carthage exhibited 1815 (National Gallery).3 Furthermore, notes on the tomb form part of a summary of Revd John Chetwode Eustace’s, A Classical Tour Through Italy (first published in 1813), inscribed in the Italian Guide Book sketchbook (see Tate D13955; Turner Bequest CLXXII 13). John Gage has discussed how Eustace had compared the centuries old neglect of Virgil’s Tomb with the destruction of the Thames house belonging to the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744), an event which Turner famously made the subject of an oil painting, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham 1808 (private collection).4
This page contains four sketches related to Turner’s visit to the tomb in 1819. In the top right-hand corner is a view of the top of the monument with a series of steps ascending the steep sides of the hill to the left. A similar view was drawn by James Hakewill (1778–1843) for his Picturesque Tour of Italy (published 1820), a book to which Turner also contributed illustrations.5 Bottom right is a study of the interior, whilst in the bottom left-hand corner is a view from the top looking down the steps. Finally, the scene top left depicts the verdant slopes looking across from the tomb towards the Vomero Hill and Castel Sant’Elmo. Related views can be found on folio 71 verso (D15868; Turner Bequest CLXXXV 69a) and in the Naples, Paestum, Rome sketchbook (Tate D15936; Turner Bequest CLXXXVI 15). See also the Naples; Rome C. Studies sketchbook for a drawing depicting the entrance to the Grotto of Posillipo with Virgil’s Tomb on the left (Tate D16098; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 11) and folio 71 (D15867; Turner Bequest CLXXXV 69) for a nineteenth-century description of the route up the hill to the monument.

Nicola Moorby
October 2010

For contemporary paintings featuring the tomb see Carlo Bonavia (fl.1751–88), Virgil’s Tomb with Castel Sant’ Elmo and the Charterhouse of San Martino in the background (D’Amodio Collection, Naples), reproduced in Giuliano Briganti, Nicola Spinosa and Lindsay Stainton, In the Shadow of Vesuvius: Views of Naples from Baroque to Romanticism 1631–1830, exhibition catalogue, Accademia Italiana delle Arti e dell arti Applicate, London 1990, p.53; and Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Virgil’s Tomb by Moonlight 1782 (Derby Museum and Art Gallery).
See Piggott 2001, pp.365–6. See also J.B. Trapp, ‘The Grave of Virgil’, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.47, 1984, pp.25–7.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, nos.129 and 131.
Gage 1987, p.192; Butlin and Joll 1984, no.72, reproduced.
See ‘Tomb of Virgil. Naples’ in Tony Cubberley and Luke Herrmann, Twilight of the Grand Tour: A catalogue of the drawings by James Hakewill in the British School at Rome Library, Rome 1992, no.5.50, p.279.
Quoted in the text accompanying the plate in James Hakewill, A Picturesque Tour of Italy, London 1820. See also Trapp 1984, p.12.
As suggested by Gage 1974, p.87 note 52. However, James Hamilton believes it is Turner’s handwriting, see Hamilton 2009, p.49.

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