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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, Rome 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, Rome 1819
D16355
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 29
Pencil and grey watercolour wash on white wove ‘Whatman’ paper, 233 x 368 mm
Inscribed by the artist in pencil with the Latin inscription from the Arch of Constantine (see main catalogue entry)
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 29’ bottom right
 
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The subject of this drawing is the southern façade of the Arch of Constantine with the Colosseum beyond. Dating from the fourth century AD, the Arch of Constantine was built to celebrate the victory of the Emperor Constantine over his co-ruler Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Unlike the nearby Arches of Titus and Septimius Severus, it had been fully excavated and restored by 1804, and Turner was therefore able to experience it as it was meant to be seen; an impressive free-standing structure standing at the top of the Via di San Gregorio.1 The monument was renowned for the well-preserved state of the decorations adorning the exterior, many of which were taken from other buildings dedicated to earlier emperors. Turner’s study provides a careful and methodical record of those bas-reliefs and their placement across the Arch. It also incorporates a copy, albeit slightly inaccurate, of the Latin inscription from the attic. Turner’s transcription reads:
IMP.CAES. FL. CONSTANTINO.MAXIMO | P.F. AGVSTO . SPQR | OVODINSTINCT.VDIVINITATIS. AENT | MAGNITVDINECVMEXE.RCITVSVD | TAM DETYRANNODVAMDECMNIEIVS | FACTIONEVNO TEMPOREIVSTIS | REMPVBLICAM VLVSESTRAMIS | ARCVM TRIPIVMPHISINIGNEMDIVAVIT
The actual text is thus:
IMP • CAES • FL • CONSTANTINO • MAXIMO | P • F • AVGUSTO • S • P • Q • R | QVOD • INSTINCTV • DIVINITATIS • MENTIS | MAGNITVDINE • CVM • EXERCITV • SVO | TAM • DE • TYRANNO • QVAM • DE • OMNI • EIVS | FACTIONE • VNO • TEMPORE • IVSTIS | REMPVBLICAM • VLTVS • EST • ARMIS | ARCVM • TRIVMPHIS •INSIGNEM • DICAVIT
[To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs]
Visible through the left side arch of the monument is the remains of the Meta Sudans, a conical fountain dating from the first century AD. It was demolished in 1936 by Mussolini to enable traffic to circle the Colosseum but the excavated foundations can still be seen today.
This is Turner’s only detailed survey of the northern face of the Arch. He did, however, make separate sketches of the various bas-reliefs which cover the surface of the southern face, the ends and the inner sides underneath the crossings, see the St Peter’s sketchbook (Tate D16190 and D16194–6; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 18 and 20–21 and Tate D17158; Turner Bequest CXCV a H). There are no written notations on these drawings indicating which part of the structure they relate to, so Turner would have had to refer to this image to make sense of them. Further, more general studies featuring the Arch in relation to its surroundings can be found on other pages within this sketchbook (see Tate D16354, D16367, D16389; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 28, 40, 58) and within the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (Tate D15397; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 53), the St Peter’s sketchbook (Tate D16197; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 2) and the Smaller Roman C. Studies sketchbook (Tate D16396, D16398, D16416, D16455; Turner Bequest CXC 2, 4, 15a, 41). Despite this large body of visual material, Turner only made one significant attempt to feature the Arch as a subject; an unfinished oil painting, The Arch of Constantine, Rome circa 1835 (Tate, N02066).2
Like many drawings within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed in pencil over a washed grey background and Turner has created small areas of pale highlights by rubbing through to the white paper beneath. As Cecilia Powell has discussed, the compositional device of placing the Arch of Constantine diagonally to the picture plane recalls Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s methods from the famous series of etchings, the Vedute di Roma.3 Turner’s chosen view showing the Arch against the wider backdrop of the Colosseum echoes Piranesi’s print, Veduta dell’Arco di Costantine, e dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo.4 However, the close viewpoint with the monument filling the page at an oblique angle is more reminiscent of the plate depicting the Arch of Septimius Severus,5 or a more focused illustration of the Arch of Constantine from the other side.6 Powell has suggested that Turner may also have seen the watercolour by Louis Ducros (1748–1810) in the collection of Sir Richard Colt Hoare at Stourhead, The Arch of Constatine (National Trust), and indeed the design is almost identical.7
1
Christopher Hibbert, Rome: The Biography of a City, London 1985, p.331.
2
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.438.
3
Powell 1984, p.112; and Powell 1987, p.38.
4
Luigi Ficacci, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Köln and London 2000, no.890, reproduced p.696.
5
Ibid., no.970, p.739.
6
Ibid., no.968, p.738.
7
Reproduced in Powell 1987, p.[40], fig.41.
Verso:
Blank, except for grey watercolour wash.

Nicola Moorby
July 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, Rome 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, July 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-the-arch-of-constantine-and-the-colosseum-rome-r1132478, accessed 19 October 2019.