Joseph Mallord William Turner

The So-Called Temple of Vesta, Tivoli


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 112 × 186 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXIX 3 a

Catalogue entry

The so-called Temple of Vesta is an ancient circular edifice dating from the first century BC which stands on the brink of the gorge at the northern edge of Tivoli. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it represented an important site for the study of classical architecture and was one of the most popular motifs for artists visiting Italy. This sketch depicts the western side of the temple which is the most ruinous. In front of a semi-circle of surviving Corinthian columns is an irregular fragment of the cella, or inner chamber, whilst on the right can be seen the rectangular arch of the door frame. Despite the fact that Palladio had labelled it as ‘Vesta’ in his I Quattoro Libri dell’Architettura (1570),1 the temple has also been frequently known in the past as the Temple of the Sibyl. Confusingly, the adjacent rectangular-shaped building formerly dedicated as a church to St George, is also known as the so-called Temple of the Sibyl. With reference to Turner’s drawings, Finberg and other scholars intermittently employed both titles, but these have now been regularised throughout using the accepted name, the ‘so-called Temple of Vesta’. However, the attributions still remain a matter for conjecture and may change again in the future.
Like many celebrated classical ruins the appearance of the Temple of Vesta was already well known to Turner before he ever set foot in Italy. Not only was it the most recognisable monument synonymous with Tivoli, but it was also the best preserved example of a circular, peripteral structure and an important reference source for the Corinthian order of architecture. Following George Dance the Younger’s (1741–1825) full measured survey during the early 1760s, the temple had become a popular source of inspiration for British architects and it also became common for English designers to incorporate features inspired by the ruin within landscaped gardens. Brocklesby Mausoleum, for example, had been built in 1792 by James Wyatt to commemorate the wife of one of Turner’s patrons, Baron Yarborough, and the artist made several studies of the structure in 1798, see for example the Brocklesby Mausoleum sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest LXXXIII), and two watercolours (Tate D08277; Turner Bequest CXXI U, and Tate D17101; Turner Bequest CXXV 130). Turner’s great friend, the architect, John Soane (1753–1857) was greatly influenced by the temple, notably in his ‘Tivoli’ corner for the Bank of England.2 Soane owned copies of Dance’s illustrations and frequently referred to the site in his Royal Academy lectures (1809–1837). Turner is therefore extremely likely to have had heard Soane discourse upon the design of the building and to have seen his detailed images of the plans and elevation.

Nicola Moorby
December 2009

Andrew Lumisden, Remarks on the Antiquities of Rome and Its Environs, London 1812, p.418.
Margaret Richardson, ‘John Soane and the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli’, Architectural History, vol.46, 2003, pp.127–146.
William Chubb, ‘Turner’s “Cicero at his Villa” ’, Burlington Magazine, vol.123, July 1981, p.417 note 1.
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, no.495. See also the engraving by Edward Goodall (Tate, T04502).

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