Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Forum, for Rogers’s ‘Italy’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 247 × 307 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 158

Catalogue entry

The Forum was engraved by Edward Goodall and appears as the head-piece to the twenty-eighth section of Rogers’s Italy, entitled ‘Rome’.1 In the opening verses of this section, which appear just beneath Turner’s design, Rogers narrates his ecstatic first moments in Rome:
I am in Rome! Oft as the morning-ray
Visits these eyes, waking at once I cry,
Whence this excess of joy? What has befallen me?
And from within a thrilling voice replies,
Thou art in Rome!
(Italy, p.137)
Although the majority of this section is devoted to historical ruminations, Rogers does provide a brief and unusually descriptive account of the Roman Forum:
But what the narrow space
Just underneath? In many a heap the ground
Heaves, as tho’ Ruin in a frantic mood
Had done his utmost. Here and there appears,
As left to shew his handy-work not ours,
An idle column, a half-buried arch,
A wall of some great temple. – It was once,
And long, the centre of their Universe,
The Forum – whence a mandate, eagle-winged,
Went to the ends of the earth. Let us descend
Slowly. At every step much may be lost.
The very dust we tread, stirs as with life;
And not a breath but from the ground sends up
Something of human grandeur.
(Italy, p.140)
Turner’s vignette provides a wealth of specific detail to illustrate Rogers’s rather general description of Rome’s ruins. The viewer gazes through the Arch of Titus, looking north-west across the Forum towards the Capitoline Hill. The three surviving columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux stand nearby, framing the more distant Temple of Saturn, which has been moved southwards and turned ninety degrees. To the right are the remains of the Temple of Vespasian and the top portion of the Arch of Septimius Severus.2 In order to produce this complex architectural composition, Turner has compressed space and distorted topographical details. His own on-the-spot sketches of the Forum in 1819 attentively reproduce the actual topography and appearance of the site (see the Albano, Nemi, Rome and St Peters sketchbooks, Tate; Turner Bequest CLXXXII and CLXXXVIII). The appearance of the ruins is also somewhat misleading. French excavation projects during the early nineteenth century had cleared the soil surrounding many of the ruins and exposed their bases. The remains in The Forum, however, still appear to be half-buried in the Roman soil, suggesting that Turner may be exaggerating their ruinous appearance to recall earlier views of Rome by Piranesi or others.3 Whilst his adjustments therefore may be inaccurate, they dramatically enhance the sense of discovery and romance conveyed by this carefully composed vignette.
Samuel Rogers, Italy, London 1830, p.137; W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.363. There are two impressions in Tate’s collection (T04653 and T04654).
Shanes, Joll, Warrell and others 2000, p.183.
Adele Holcomb, ‘J.M.W. Turner’s Illustrations to the Poets’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of California, Los Angeles 1966, p.55.
Holcomb 1969, p.408 note 19 and Piggott 1993, pp.36–7.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.233.

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

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