Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Basilica of Constantine, Rome


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache, pen and ink, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 230 × 367 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 38

Catalogue entry

The remains of the fourth-century Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius (sometimes erroneously called the Temple of Peace) stand at the eastern end of the Roman Forum. This vast building, once used for business and judiciary affairs, is the subject of a large number of drawings dating from Turner’s 1819 tour, see the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (Tate D15394; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 51a), the St Peter’s sketchbook (Tate D16262–D16266; Turner Bequest 58a–60a) and other studies within this sketchbook (D16346, D16356, D16376 and D16382; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 20, 30, 47 and 53). It also dominates the right-hand side of Turner’s large oil painting, Forum Romanum, for Mr Soane’s Museum exhibited 1826 (Tate N00504).1 The edifice was the largest in the ancient Forum and this study captures the huge physical presence of the basilica by focusing on only one of the three surviving barrel vaults and slanting the viewpoint so that the arched opening with its coffered ceiling entirely fills the left-hand side of the composition. Turner also appears to have manipulated the arrangement of the topograhy to suit his own artistic purposes. Visible within the pictorial space on the far right is the campanile of the Church of Santa Francesca Romana, which the artist has pulled closer to the basilica from its true position. However, the Colosseum, which also should appear beyond the ruined arcade of the eastern vestibule, is missing. The sense of scale is further enhanced by the inclusion of some figurative detail in the foreground. Amidst the fragments visible lying on the ground below the vault Turner has drawn a couple of men, one of whom appears to be taking a nap on top of a piece of fallen masonry. The sense of decaying and faded grandeur is further enhanced by the presence of cows within the ruins, reflecting the modern usage of the site as a market for livestock and the modern appellation of the Forum as the ‘Campo Vaccino’ (Field of Cattle).
Turner’s treatment of the Basilica of Constantine reflects his knowledge of the Italian engraver, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), particularly the Vedute di Roma, which Turner had studied as a young man in the collection of Sir Richard Colt Hoare at Stourhead. The close-up view of one of the great vaults, the compositional device of placing the Basilica diagonally to the picture plane, and the inclusion of figures and animals to enliven the design all recall Piranesi’s eighteenth-century etching, Ruine des Speisesaals des Nero, sog. Tempio della Pace.2 There is also some similarity with the Roman watercolour paintings of the Swiss artist, Louis Ducros (1748–1810), for example Basilique de Maxence (Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne).3 Like many pages within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner first drew the outline in pencil before partially working up the view with watercolour, touches of white gouache and black pen-and-ink. Andrew Wilton has also suggested that the bright colouring and mixed media is a conscious imitation of the work of contemporary topographic and architectural draughtsmen such as Carlo Labruzzi (1748–1817) and Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820).4 John Ruskin described it as a ‘noble study for its breadth of colour’.5
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.233.
Luigi Ficacci, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Köln and London 2000, no.985, p.748, reproduced.
Reproduced in Pierre Chessex, Lindsay Stainton, Luc Boissonnas et al., Images of the Grand Tour: Louis Ducros, exhibition catalogue, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne 1985, no.5, p.[48].
Wilton 1975, p.54.
John Ruskin, ‘Catalogue of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery’, London 1857, reproduced in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds.), Library Edition: The Works of John Ruskin: Volume XIII: Turner: The Harbours of England; Catalogues and Notes, London 1904, p.299.

Nicola Moorby
October 2009

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