Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Porta Nigra, Trier


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 138 × 190 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCXX W

Catalogue entry

The Porta Nigra is a Roman fortified gate located in the German city of Trier. Erected in the second century AD as the ‘Porta Martis’, the monument gained its present name, ‘Black Gate’, in the Middle Ages because of the gradual darkening and discolouration of the grey sandstone slabs with which it was built.1 The Porta Nigra was used as a church in the eleventh century, acquiring ‘numerous accretions and embellishments’ over the years, the art historian Cecilia Powell writes.2 By the time of Turner’s visit, however, ‘these had all been stripped away... under the Napoleonic regime’ and the Porta Nigra was once again used as a city gate.3
Upon visiting the monument during his six-week tour of the Meuse-Moselle region, the barrister and travel writer Bartholomew Stritch described the Porta Nigra as a ‘somber, imposing, and gigantic mass of masonry... built of immense blocks of stone, held together by bars of iron... in the form of a parallelogram’.4 Of all Trier’s Roman edifices and ruins, the Porta Nigra was the city’s ‘principal and most interesting’ destination for the gentlemen tourist with antiquarian interests.5

Turner’s drawing of Trier’s ancient monument is rendered in loose, translucent washes of grey, pink, and yellow pigment. This palette, and the naturally illuminating properties of watercolour, transforms this rather formidable and gloomy edifice into a painterly and aestheticised one.
This gouache of the Porta Nigra is based on a pencil sketch in the Trèves to Cochem and Coblenz to Mayence sketchbook of 1839 (Tate D28431; Turner Bequest CCXC 41). There are other, earlier drawings of the monument in the Trèves and Rhine sketchbook of 1824 (Tate D20141–D20142; Turner Bequest CCXVIII 3–4).
‘Porta Nigra’, Trier, accessed 21 July 2014,
Powell 1991, p.131 no.48.
Bartholomew Stritch, author of The Meuse, The Moselle, and the Rhine; or, A Six Weeks’ Tour Through the Finest River Scenery in Europe, London 1845, p.37.
Ibid, pp.37–8.
Stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram and ‘CCXX–W’ towards bottom right; inscribed in pencil ‘10a’ at centre towards right and ‘Porta Nigra Trèves.’ at bottom.

Alice Rylance-Watson
June 2013

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