This apparently nocturnal scene of an extensive townscape ablaze beyond classical buildings was named ‘Rome burning’ by Finberg,1 and the vivid study has continued to be exhibited and published extensively under this title or close variants. Finberg was presumably thinking of the devastating fire of July 64 AD, during the reign of Emperor Nero, from classical accounts of which arises the well-known saying ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’. (Literary references appear for example in Talbot speech in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, ‘and like thee, Nero, | Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn’,2 or a passing allusion to how ‘Nero fiddled to the flames’ in Variety, a poem by William Whitehead (1715–1785) available to Turner in Anderson’s British Poets,3 a thirteen-volume anthology he had owned and studied since about 1798.4)
Following his long stay in the city during his second Italian tour of 1828–9, Turner painted Rome in its ancient and modern aspects in the latter half of the 1830s: see the unfinished Arch of Constantine, Rome of about 1835 (Tate N02066),5 Rome, from Mount Aventine, exhibited in 1836 (private collection),6 Ancient Italy – Ovid Banished from Rome, exhibited in 1838 (private collection),7 and the pairing Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. The Triumphal Bridge and Palace of the Caesars Restored (Tate N00523)8 and Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles),9 shown in 1839. Ovid’s banishment by Augustus occurred in 8 AD and Germanicus died in 19 AD, so it is possible Turner was considering a further subject from this early period of Roman Imperial history. The arrangement here, with columns silhouetted in the elevated foreground, may be compared and contrasted with the peaceful setting of the ruined Forum of Modern Rome.
Lindsay Stainton has regarded Turner’s subject as ‘essentially a fantasy on the theme of fire, a subject which particularly interested him during the late 1830s and early 1840s’, comparing the technique and ‘the dramatic effect of intense light against a night sky’ with Tate D32248 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 29), an 1840 gouache of fireworks at Venice,10 among a grouping of nocturnal views of the city on similar brown paper; see also Tate D32229 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 10). The sensational, apocalyptic Biblical and classical paintings of John Martin (1789–1854) might have been in Turner’s mind in terms of approaching a dramatic composition, as Stainton and David Blayney Brow have suggested;11 compare Martin’s large painting of The Destruction of Pompei [sic] and Herculaneum at London’s Egyptian Hall in 1822 (Tate N00793).
Finberg 1909, II, p.
1 Henry VI, I. iv. 94–5.
Robert Anderson (ed.), The Works of the British Poets. With Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, London and Edinburgh 1795, vol.XI, p.940.
See Andrew Wilton and Rosalind Mallord Turner, Painting and Poetry: Turner’s ‘Verse Book’ and his Work of 1804–1812, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1990, p.113.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.277 no.438, pl.441 (colour).
Ibid., p.217 no.366, pl.370 (colour).
Ibid., pp.226–7 no.375, pl.377 (colour).
Ibid., pp.231–2 no.378, pl.382 (colour).
Ibid., p.232 no.379, pl.383 (colour).
Stainton 1982, p.76.
See Stainton 1982, p.76, and Brown 1997, p.281.
Solender 1984, pp.52–3.
Taft 2007, p.181.
Costello 2012, p.98.