Turner’s exploration of Tivoli included a large number of landscape sketches drawn from the river valley to the north. He was particularly attracted by the spectacle of the town’s ancient ruins perched above the steep, wooded gorge and streaming waterfalls. This drawing depicts the ruins of the Santuario di Ercole Vincitore (Sanctuary of Hercules Victor), a large temple complex dating from the first century BC, seen from the opposite site of the gorge, at a point near the Ponte dell’Acquoria (Bridge of the Golden Water), a Roman bridge which carried the ancient Via Tiburtina over the River Aniene. The vista looks east, past the long arcades of the Santuario, towards the campanile of the Cathedral (Duomo) of San Lorenzo, and the substructures supporting the Piazza dell’Olmo (present-day Piazza Domenico Tani). The left-hand side of the composition meanwhile is dominated by an olive grove, characteristic of the woods surrounding the town. Similar views can be seen on folios 8, 16, 21, 26, and 41a (D15474, D15482, D15487, D15493 and D15509), and in the Tivoli and Rome sketchbook (Tate D15033; Turner Bequest CLXXIX 57 verso).
Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner has created highlights within the work by rubbing or lifting out the wash to reveal the white paper beneath, principally to depict the silvery streams of the falling cascatelli (or cascatelle), the lesser cascades emerging beneath the substructures of the temple. He has further enhanced the dramatic chiaroscuro by darkening the arcades beneath the Santuario with vigorous shading and hatched lines. Turner’s interest in the twisted, gnarled forms of the tree trunks clinging to the steep slopes, as well as the tonal study of light and shade, is reminiscent of watercolour landscapes by Francis Towne (1739–1816), for example, Rocks and Trees at Tivoli 1781 (Tate, T08552).1
Formerly known as the Villa of Maecenas, the Santuario di Ercole Vincitore was one of Tivoli’s most famous landmarks. Its picturesque qualities were described by Revd John Chetwode Eustace who, in A Classical Tour Through Italy, first published in 1813, recommended the view from the opposite side of the valley:
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