J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Inside the Colosseum, Rome 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Folio 14 Verso:
Inside the Colosseum, Rome 1819
Turner Bequest CXC 14 a
Pencil and grey watercolour wash on white wove paper, 255 x 130 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Arguably the most famous of all the surviving monuments of classical Rome is the Flavian Amphitheatre, a huge building universally known as the Colosseum, which stands at the eastern end of the Roman Forum between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Built 72–80 AD., the immense ruin was as popular with tourists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it is today and its crumbling but impressive remains represented a constant source of inspiration for artists. Turner’s 1819 sketches demonstrate that he studied the Colosseum from a variety of viewpoints both inside and outside the celebrated structure.1 He had read John Chetwode Eustace’s book, A Classical Tour Through Italy, which stated that ‘Never did human art present to the eye a fabric so well calculated by its size and form, to surprise and delight’ (see the Italian Guide Book sketchbook, Tate D13943; Turner Bequest CLXXII 7).2 Eustace recommended viewing the building first from the north, and then the south before finally entering its ‘lofty arcades’ to consider the ‘vast mass of ruin ... insulated walls, immense stones suspended in the air, arches covered with weeds and shrubs, vaults opening upon other ruins ... in short, above, below, and around, one vast collection of magnificence and devastation, of grandeur and decay’.3
This sketch depicts a view of the interior seen through a ground floor arch. Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner has used the page vertically in portrait format in order to capture a sense of the full height of the arena and its successive storeys of arcades. A further sense of scale is introduced by the small robed figure kneeling in prayer in the foreground and one of the altars to the fourteen Stations of the Cross visible in the centre. In 1750, Pope Benedict XIV had consecrated the building to the memory of the early Christians who were martyred there and the ruins became a site for Catholic worship.
Further sketches of the interior of the Colosseum can be found on folio 18 and 33 (D16420 and D16451; Turner Bequest CXC 18 and 38), and within the Rome C. Studies sketchbook (Tate D16339, D16380 and D16389; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 13, 51 and 58).

Nicola Moorby
May 2009

See Moorby 2008, p.115.
John Chetwode Eustace, A Classical Tour Through Italy, London 1815, 3rd edition, vol.I, pp.374–5.
Ibid., p.375.

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘Inside the Colosseum, Rome 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-inside-the-colosseum-rome-r1132513, accessed 20 May 2024.