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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Milan: The Skyline at Dawn, with the Campanile of San Giovanni in Conca, the Church of Sant'Alessandro in Zebedia and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, from the Albergo dei Tre Re 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Milan: The Skyline at Dawn, with the Campanile of San Giovanni in Conca, the Church of Sant’Alessandro in Zebedia and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, from the Albergo dei Tre Re 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXI 3
Pencil and watercolour on white wove paper, 223 x 287 mm
Inscribed by John Ruskin in red ink ‘3’ bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXI – 3’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Falling in terms of its original foliation between watercolour views of Lake Como (D15251–D15252; Turner Bequest CLXXXI 1, 2) and Venice (beginning with D15254; CLXXXI 4), the subject of the ‘extraordinary view’, as Andrew Wilton characterised it,1 long eluded accurate identification. Finberg subsequently and uncharacteristically somewhat wildly annotated his 1909 Inventory entry (‘Sunset on dome and towers’): ‘Florence. The Cathedral’;2 for an actual view of the city, see D15259 (CLXXXI 8). The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated another copy, amending Finberg’s ‘Sunset’ by crossing out the second syllable and inserting ‘rise’, adding: ‘(Brescia?) more likely sunset’.3 Brescia was also on Turner’s 1819 route; see the Milan to Venice sketchbook (Tate D14352; Turner Bequest CLXXV 19). Wilton noted the town was ‘presumably one in northern Italy, near Como, Milan or Venice’,4 while Gerald Wilkinson suggested it was seen ‘perhaps from a hotel window’.5
In fact, the elevated view is to the west over the southern part of central Milan, with the Baroque dome and flanking campanili of the church of Sant’Alessandro in Zebedia at the centre and the cupola of the basilica of San Lorenzo in the distance to the south-west at the far left; the latter is shown from other angles in the Milan to Venice book (Tate D14339, D14341; Turner Bequest CLXXV 8a, 9a). Partly eclipsing Sant’Alessandro is the campanile of the church of San Giovanni in Conca, of which only the crypt survives, along with part of an apse above ground in the Piazza Giuseppe Missori, not far south of Milan Cathedral.
These identifications are due to Federico Crimi,6 who established the likely viewpoint as an upper storey of the exclusive Albergo dei Tre Re (Three Kings),7 where Turner was likely staying for the short while he was in Milan on this occasion.8 It stood a little east of San Giovanni in an area which has seen much redevelopment; the church had already been deconsecrated and its tower used as a telegraph station from 1805 and a meteorological station from 1808, and Turner has apparently recorded technical equipment on its roof in his pencil work.9 Turner made numerous studies of Milan in pencil alone, focusing particularly on the cathedral, in the smaller Milan to Venice sketchbook; see under Tate D14328 (Turner Bequest CLXXV 2), under which his wider coverage of the city is noted, and Crimi has suggested that D14350 (Turner Bequest CLXXV 18), a hurried and slight drawing, may relate to the present subject.10
Crimi has noted a lack of direct supporting evidence for Turner’s stay at the Tre Re, mentioning also its rivals the Reale and the Europa, but he was certainly aware of its name.11 The Route to Rome sketchbook, which he carried with him on this tour, includes travel notes by James Hakewill (1778–1843), with whom he had been collaborating on the Picturesque Tour of Italy (published in 1820); see Nicola Moorby’s Introduction to that sketchbook (Tate; Turner Bequest CLXXI). Among Hakewill’s recommendations is the following: ‘At Milan – . Go to the Albergo Reale | in the Street, tre Re (sounded tra ra) | The inn kept by Baccala –’ (Tate D13867; Turner Bequest CLXXI 5).
As the orientation of the view was not then established, the glowing illumination of the towers and domes rising from deep shadow led Finberg to describe the subject as a sunset,12 but as the light is coming from behind the west-facing viewer, its source must be the rising sun. Whether Turner painted over his careful pencil outlines as the dawn came up or from later recollection is as so often a moot point, but as with other watercolours in the present sketchbook, there is a quality of immediacy here; the limited palette and relatively loose application, particularly in the dim foreground, suggest direct and rapid observation of the newly experienced Italian light.13
Working from high in a building, presumably fortuitously taking advantage of the impressive if unconventionally arranged view on this occasion, was a natural extension of Turner’s liking for elevated topographical features as vantage points. As he returned through Milan early in 1820 he used a page of the Return from Italy sketchbook for studies of chimneys, apparently at eye level (Tate D16670; Tate CXCII 15a). In 1840 he depicted Venice through the windows of his well-appointed room at the Hotel Europa (Tate D32219; Turner Bequest CCCXVII 34),14 and produced numerous rooftop views of the city from the hotel (Tate D32173, D32224, D32254, D35882; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 36, CCCXVIII 5, CCCXIX 6, CCCLXIV 43); compare in particular a view with three campanili (Tate D32140; Turner Bequest CCCXVI 3).
The ‘1818–1821’ volume of Finberg’s personal, chronologically arranged albums of Turner’s works includes his own watercolour copy of this page with pencil notes on the verso of possible identifications including Riva San Vitale (Switzerland), Como, Brescia, Mantua and Florence, as well as a photograph with further speculations jotted on the back.15
Wilton 1979, p.142.
Undated MS note by A.J. Finberg (died 1939) in interleaved copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Undated MS note by C.F. Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, I, p.535.
Wilton 1975, p.52.
Wilkinson 1977, p.152.
See Crimi 2007, pp.39–43; see also upublished notes by Ian Warrell, Tate catalogue files, Hamilton 2008, pp. 42, 90 note 12 and 2009, pp. 40, 150 note 12, acknowledging Crimi and Warrell, Warrell 2008, p.67 note 1, and Warrell 2014, p.106.
See Crimi 2007, p.42.
Ibid., pp.39, 42–3.
Ibid., p.41.
Ibid., p.43 note 62.
Ibid., pp.42–3.
See Finberg 1909, I, p.535.
See Crimi 2007, p.40.
See ibid., p.43 note 62.
A.J. Finberg, ‘Turner’s Work’, no date, Tate Britain Prints and Drawings Room, vol.V, laid in at folio 70.
Technical notes:
The work was painted within the Como and Venice sketchbook, the first eight leaves of which where mounted in 1935 (see the book’s Introduction); all of them were trimmed slightly irregularly at the gutter on the left, with the edges of the stitching holes being evident here and there.
Blank; stamped in black with Turner Bequest monogram over ‘CLXXXI – 3’ towards bottom left, and inscribed in pencil ‘CLXXXI – 3’ bottom centre.

Matthew Imms
March 2017

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Milan: The Skyline at Dawn, with the Campanile of San Giovanni in Conca, the Church of Sant’Alessandro in Zebedia and the Basilica of San Lorenzo, from the Albergo dei Tre Re 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 2017, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, July 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-milan-the-skyline-at-dawn-with-the-campanile-of-san-giovanni-r1186393, accessed 24 May 2024.