Joseph Mallord William Turner

Lecture Diagram 5: Top of the Column of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Rome


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 980 × 642 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CXCV 153

Display caption

This detailed diagram of Trajan's column was probably drawn from a plaster
copy. Turner used the image during
his first lecture to the Royal Academy
as Professor of Perspective in 1811.


Turner discussed the problems of representing the distortion of sculptural features when viewed from below. In
this example, the spiral bas-reliefs are
at the top of a column thirty metres
high. Turner's delivery of his lectures
was apparently poor, but people came
to see the illustrations.


Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

As Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, Turner devoted part of Lecture 1 to a lengthy discussion of sculpture, showing illustrations including two diagrams based on prints of Roman columns published by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) in the 1770s. Diagram 5 depicts the top portion of the Column of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (176–93 AD) in Piazza Colonna, and demonstrates the importance of adjusting the proportions of objects placed high above the viewer. Here Turner enters into an old debate as to whether the Romans increased the proportions of their bas reliefs as they spiralled to the top of the column, and compares this diagram to one of Trajan’s Column (Tate D17123; Turner Bequest CXCV 152).1 He concludes, ‘If we depend upon Piranesi’s geometrical sections, we shall find that the space between the spiral line [of Trajan’s Column] increases in the first volutions and in the Antonine it increases a whole return at the top’.2 Finberg mistook the diagram, and one of the bottom portion of the column (Tate D17121; Turner Bequest CXCV 150), for views of Trajan’s Column.
For other derivations from Piranesi among the lecture diagrams see Tate D17090, D17091, D17099; Turner Bequest CXCV 120, 121, 128, based on his prison scenes, and D17124; Turner Bequest CXCV 102, probably derived from his views of Paestum.
Turner, ‘Royal Academy Lectures’, circa 1807–38, Department of Western Manuscripts, British Library, London, ADD MS 46151 C folio 8 verso–9, K folio 9 verso–10 verso and J folio 9.
Ibid., K folio 10 verso.
Blank, save for an inscription by Ruskin in red ink ‘153’ top right and by unknown hands in pencil ‘TURNER PORTF L3 (b)’ bottom right and ‘117’ top left.

Andrea Fredericksen
June 2004

Supported by The Samuel H. Kress Foundation

Revised by David Blayney Brown
January 2012

Read full Catalogue entry

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