Richard Wilson

Maecenas’ Villa, Tivoli


Not on display

Richard Wilson 1713–1782
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 361 × 254 mm
frame: 492 × 387 × 75 mm
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847


This is one of a pair of small pictures of the ruins of Roman villas painted by Richard Wilson between about 1763 and 1765. The other picture, also belonging to Tate, is entitled Hadrian's Villa (N00302). The title of the present picture, Maecenas' Villa, was first used by Wilson's pupil, Joseph Farington (1747-1821), who owned another similar version of the same subject, and which later belonged to John Constable (1776-1837). Even so, there is no absolute proof that the ruin in question relates to Maecenas's villa, although it is possible that Wilson may have considered it as such.

Maecenas' Villa appears to have been based upon a drawing (British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings) made by Wilson in Italy in 1752-3 (Constable, p.205, plate 87b; Solkin, p.162, reproduced). There are, however, noticeable compositional variations between the drawing and the finished picture, particularly the inclusion of the landscape to the left and the broken antique column and statue in the finished picture.

In 1776 Michael Angelo Rooker (1743 or 1746-1801) engraved a version of the subject as Villa of Maecenas at Tivoli for Twelve Original Views of Italy published by John Boydell (1719-1804). However, the engraving varies from known versions of the picture, including the present painting. Indeed, the fact that the engraving is inscribed 'Wilson del.' ('delineat' or drawn by), suggests that it was made from a drawing by Wilson - although not the drawing of the related subject in the British Museum.

Numerous copies were made from Wilson's own versions of the picture, and also probably from the engraved image. For a history of the picture and related versions by John Constable see the short text for Hadrian's Villa, Tate N00302.

Further reading:

W.G. Constable, Richard Wilson, London 1953, p.205, pl.87a
David H. Solkin, Richard Wilson. The Landscape of Reaction, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1982, pp.218-9, no.108, reproduced
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon's gift. British Art for the Nation 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1993, p.65, reproduced

Martin Postle
June 2001

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Display caption

The composition of this view, and that of its companion, Hadrian's Villa, is more modest than many of Wilson’s larger Tivoli paintings. Nevertheless, it incorporates a similar intellectual message in its theme of the destruction of past glories through time and neglect. The villa was believed to have been the residence of Maecenas, ambassador of the Emperor Augustus and most renowned of all Roman patrons of the arts. He was seen as the personification of decadent luxury. The ruins of his villa therefore embodied both a high point of classical civilisation and the cause of its collapse. Wilson’s view of the crumbling building thus held a moral lesson for the viewer.

Gallery label, April 2007

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