Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Summit of Vesuvius from Its Slopes


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 122 x 197 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXIV 44 a

Catalogue entry

An important part of the Neapolitan tourist experience was an expedition to climb Vesuvius, considered by many to be one of the greatest sights in Italy. From the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries the volcano was highly active, making the journey to the top a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Nevertheless, many tourists made the hot and arduous ascent.1 According to Mariano Vasi in his guidebook, A New Picture of Naples, and its Environs (published 1820), most visitors approached the summit via the village of Resina (present-day Ercolano or Herculaneum where it was possible to hire horses and guides. From here:
it is customary only to ascend about a third part of the mountain on horseback; the guides, who are generally strong and active, then present to the travellers girdles, which are attached to their own backs, and which the latter fasten round them, and in this way proceed towards the summit. The higher they ascend the more difficult the road becomes; and as the mountain is covered with ashes, and with a sort of corrosive gravel which is very slippery, travellers would be in imminent danger of falling, were they not to take the necessary precaution of thus fastening themselves to the girdles of their conductors.2
Once at the top, tourists could walk along a narrow path around the perimeter of the crater, and, if the volcano was tranquil enough, even descend some way into its depths where the effects of the heat were reported to be equal ‘to that of a stove’.3 They could also admire the spectacular panoramic prospect across the Gulf of Naples, as recorded by John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749–1831) in his watercolour, City of Naples from Vesuvius 1778–9 (Tate, T08509).
Turner’s sketches of the view from Vesuvius suggest that he too set out from Resina and walked up the western side of the volcano, see folios 42 verso–48 (D15637–D15648; Turner Bequest CLXXXIV 40c–46). He is known to have made the ascent in company with two other people, one of whom was Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795–1885), a young architect from the Royal Academy.4 Donaldson later recounted that during the expedition Turner had ‘made a coloured sketch of the sky, which he did not show to his companions’.5 As Powell has discussed, no such study has been identified and it seems highly unlikely that Turner would have been able to paint in watercolour during the difficult, tiring and blistering climb.6 A more reasonable explanation is that Donaldson merely observed his companion making the pencil jottings evident in the Gandolfo to Naples sketchbook.

Nicola Moorby
May 2010

For eighteenth-century accounts of Vesuvius see Jeremy Black, Italy and the Grand Tour, New Haven and London 2003, pp.54–5.
Mariano Vasi, A New Picture of Naples, and its Environs, London 1820, p.266.
Ibid., p.267.
The name of the other person is not known. See Powell 1987, pp.80–1. Donaldson’s Roman address can be found inscribed in the back of one of Turner’s sketchbooks, see the Vatican Fragments sketchbook (Tate D15250; Turner Bequest CLXXX 81a).
See Powell 1987, p.81.
Powell 1984, p.183.
Andrew Wilton, The Life and Work of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, nos.697 and 698.
Ibid., no.699, reproduced.
Powell 1987, p.81.

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