Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Basilica of Constantine from the Farnese Gardens on the Palatine Hill, Rome


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and graphite on paper
Support: 234 × 369 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 30

Display caption

Turner's views of Rome, especially those from his first visit in 1819, seem impregnated with the Byronic spirit. Both painter and poet shared the Romantic preoccupation with departed grandeur. Rome, 'my country! city of the soul! ... Lone mother of dead empires!' was the supreme example of the ironies of history. Individual sufferings paled beside the sublime tragedy proclaimed by the city's ruins but natural beauty, represented for both Turner and Byron by moonlight on the Colosseum, transfigured everything, 'leaving that beautiful which still was so,/ And making that which was not, till the place/ Became religion, and the heart ran o'er/ With silent worship of the great of old'.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

The Palatine Hill was one of the most popular vantage points in Rome and Turner made a large number of studies recording views of the city seen in all directions. As Thomas Ashby first identified, this sketch depicts a vista seen from the Farnese Gardens (Orti Farnesiani sul Palatino), sixteenth-century gardens created by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, on the northern side of the hill.1 On the left-hand side of the compostion are the open arcades of the two aviaries on the upper terrace of the gardens, and the viewer looks beyond these to the Basilica of Constantine in the Forum, and the adjacent Torre dei Milize. In the foreground Turner has depicted several pieces of ruined Roman masonry in ‘picturesque confusion’, including decorative marble capitals and broken column bases from the Imperial palaces of the Palatine.2 Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visitors to Rome often commented upon the fragmentary remains of buildings and sculptures which could be seen scattered around the city, and Charlotte Eaton described the Farnese Gardens as ‘casinos of Popes mouldering upon the palaces of Roman emperors’.3 Turner’s inclusion of them here is reminiscent of the aesthetic properties of celebrated views by Piranesi,4 and Claude Lorrain.5 David Blayney Brown has suggested that the drawing captures the sense of awe and desolation experienced by Romantic tourists cognisant with Byron’s description of Rome in Canto IV of his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, as the ‘Lone mother of dead empires’ with ‘steps of broken thrones and temples’.6
Like many drawings within the Rome C. Studies sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner started with a basic outline in pencil before partially developing the scene in watercolour. The colour he has added, described by John Ruskin as ‘divinest’,7 is naturalistic and local, and his handling of the paint is largely loose and free. As Cecilia Powell has discussed, despite the freshness and vitality of the sketch it is unlikely to have been painted en plein air since this was not a practice which the artist generally undertook (see the general introduction to the sketchbook).8 Related views can be found on other pages from this book (see Tate D16346, D16369, D16382, D16394; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 20, 42, 53, 62a).
Ashby 1925, p.26.
Quoted 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, p.201.
Liversidge and Edwards 1996, pp.75–6.
See Warrell 2002, p.192.
Blayney Brown 1992, p.128.
Cook and Wedderburn (eds)., vol.XIII, p.379 note 2.
Powell 1987, p.28.

Nicola Moorby
October 2009

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