Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Exterior Façade of the Sistine Chapel, Rome


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 113 × 189 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXII 37

Catalogue entry

The subject of this sketch is the rectangular, buttressed façade of the Sistine Chapel, seen from the courtyard at the building’s northwest corner, near the present-day Via del Governatorato and gardens of the Vatican. The complex perspective includes the steeply receding height of the Chapel itself and the interlocking diagonals of the walls and gates on the perimeter. On the far right is the adjacent façade of St Peter’s whilst on the left is a small fountain in the centre of the courtyard.
Turner must have viewed the interior of the Sistine Chapel during his stay in Rome in 1819. During his second sojourn in 1828, he reported to his friend Sir Thomas Lawrence that the famous ceiling of the chapel was ‘as grand magnificent and overwhelming to contemplating [sic] as ever’, indicating that he must have visited it on the previous trip.1 Yet there are no drawings evident within the sketchbooks to corroborate this.2 As Cecilia Powell has argued, this is probably because such an exercise would have constituted a waste of Turner’s time. Reproductive images of Michelangelo’s mighty frescos were so readily available that it would not have represented good use of his energies to sketch images accessible through other sources. The exterior façade of the Sistine Chapel, however, would have been much less well known and it is unlikely that Turner would have seen it depicted before.
The detail in the bottom right-hand corner of the page appears to show a section of the Cortile dell Pigna, a large bronze pine cone from an ancient Roman fountain which is now installed in a niche outside the Vatican’s Belvedere Palace.

Nicola Moorby
May 2008

Turner to Sir Thomas Lawrence, postmarked 15 December 1828, reproduced in John Gage (ed), Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner, Oxford 1980, no.144, p.122.
Powell 1987, pp.66–7.

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