Like many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visitors to Rome, part of Turner’s exploration of the city included the panoramic views seen from certain elevated vantage points. One of the most famous of these was the Janiculum Hill (or Gianicolo), a ridge of high ground to the west of the River Tiber which offered sweeping vistas across the historical centre of the capital. This sketch represents the prospect looking north towards St Peter’s and the Vatican. The composition continues on the opposite sheet of the double-page spread, see folio 40 (D15370) and a sketch of the view looking south can be found on folio 40 verso (D15371).
This sketch also identifies the location of Turner’s viewpoint on the Janiculum. The tree which dominates the foreground on the right-hand side of the page is that known as ‘Tasso’s oak’, a fabled Roman landmark which stands on the northern tip of the hill. It is associated with the sixteenth-century poet Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), who according to legend spent the final year of his life waiting under the tree for official recognition for his works from the Pope. Tasso died in the nearby convent of Sant’Onofrio where his tomb now lies. His oak survived until the early twentieth century when it was struck by lightning.1 The remnants can still be seen today, held upright by concrete and metal scaffolding. In the foreground of his sketch Turner has indicated the terraced seating of the Teatro Alla Quercia del Tasso, a small open-air theatre near Tasso’s oak. Turner also made sequences of sketches related to this spot in the St Peter’s sketchbook (Tate D16158–D16165; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 2–5), the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook (Tate D16446–D16447; Turner Bequest CXC 34a–35) and the Rome: C. Studies sketchbook (see Tate D16378; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 49).
Turner made a thorough exploration of various locations on the Janiculum using several sketchbooks. In addition to sketches from the oak of Torquato Tasso he also recorded the view from the Villa Lante in the centre of the hill (Tate D16338; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 12, D40856, and Tate D16449; Turner Bequest CXC 36). Finally, related sketches from the southern tip include the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, folio 81 (Tate D15450; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 80), San Pietro in Montorio (Tate D16328; CLXXXIX 2 and folios 79 verso–80 verso, Tate D15447–D15449; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 78a–79a) and the Villa Aurelia (Tate D16353; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 27 and D40049). The extended series of sketches suggests that he was seriously exploring the subject as a potential picture in oil or watercolour. His interest ultimately led to a finished watercolour, Rome, San Pietro in Montorio circa 1820–1 (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) which he produced following the 1819 tour for his great friend and patron, Walter Fawkes.2
See a stereoscopic photograph dated 1906, Rome in Stereoscopia, 1855–1908, exhibition catalogue, Biblioteca vallicelliana, Museo nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, Rome 1994, p.124.
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, no.720, as ‘Rome, from the Pincian Hill’. First identified with correct title by David Hill in Turner in Yorkshire, exhibition catalogue, York City Art Gallery, York 1980, no.97, p.64. Reproduced in colour in The Courtauld Collection, exhibition catalogue, Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere 2008, no.16.