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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Colosseum, Rome, by Moonlight 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Colosseum, Rome, by Moonlight 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 13
Watercolour, gouache and pencil on white wove paper, 232 x 369 mm
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 13’ bottom right
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 looking from the western end towards the higher section of surviving wall on the opposite side. Visible at various intervals around the perimeter of the central arena are some of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, built in 1750 after Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the building to the memory of the early Christians who were martyred there. The choice of viewpoint is similar to that by John ‘Warwick’ Smith, Internal view of the Coliseum from Select Views in Italy, copied by Turner in the Italian Guide Book sketchbook (see Tate D13966; Turner Bequest CLXXII 19, top right). Further sketches of the interior can be found within the Rome: C. Studies sketchbook (D16380 and D16389; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 51 and 58), and within the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook (see Tate D16414, D16420, D16451; Turner Bequest CXC 14a, 18, 38).
Unlike other sketches (see D16349; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 23), which document in detail the architectural and topographical appearance of the Colosseum, the focus of this coloured study is the way in which the interior is transformed by the atmospheric effects of light. Although Eric Shanes has stipulated that the light source is the sun,4 and Barry Venning has argued that Turner has depicted a twilight scene reflecting the theme of Rome’s imperial decline,5 most art historians agree that the artist is engaging with a wider, nineteenth-century vogue for nocturnal contemplation of the famous monument by moonlight.6 One of the earliest advocates for viewing Rome after dark was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), described its appeal in his Italian Journey, 1786–88, (first published 1816–17):
Nobody who has not taken one can imagine the beauty of a walk through Rome by full moon. All details are swallowed up by the huge masses of light and shadow, and only the biggest and most general outlines are visible ... This is the kind of illumination by which to see the Pantheon, the Capitol, (the Colosseo), the square in front of St. Peter's and many other large squares and streets.7
Other writers also chronicled the powerful spectacle presented by the city at night, for example, the Swiss author, Madame de Staël, who declared in her popular novel Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807), ‘The moon is the star of the ruins’. For the Romantic tourist the Colosseum was found to be particularly evocative. The combination of dark, shadowy remains, ghostly silvery light and the Colosseum’s troubled and bloody history proved irresistibly alluring and affecting. Night-time visits became a standard experience endorsed by travel guides, for example, by Mariana Starke in her book, Travels in Europe, first published in 1820, which advised that ‘If the weather be fine, and the moon in or about its second quarter, Travellers ... should drive to the Colosseo, and contemplate that edifice by moonlight.’8 She recommended that ‘Persons who wish to see the Colosseum by moonlight should provide themselves with lanterns; and likewise apply, at the neighbouring Guard-house, for a Soldier to guide them up the Stairs, and through the Corridors, to the Attic-Storey.’9 Artists too were drawn to the subject, see for example, Richard Wilson (1713–1782), The Colosseum by Moonlight, black chalk on paper, undated (Vatican Library).10 The tradition continued into the late nineteenth century, featuring in novels such as Alexandre Dumas’s, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), and Henry James’s, Daisy Miller (1878). The Scottish artist, Hugh ‘Grecian’ Williams (1773–1829), whom Turner had met in 1818 during work on Sir Walter Scott’s, Provincial Antiquities of Scotland, fully described the experience in Travels in Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands, published in 1820:
As we approached the Coliseum, the moon pointed out innumerable columns of marble and granite, some of them entire, and others broken by brutal violence. When we entered the Coliseum itself, the moon was in full splendour; but in attempting to describe this mighty work, I feel how utterly inadequate my powers are to my subject. The innumberable open arches, with the moon beams shining through them, were like the eyes of past ages looking upon them ... Sometimes we wandered in the dark; at other times we were led by the glimmering light of scattered moon-beams seen from afar, and casting shadows which appeared like the phantoms of the departed ... While one part was in shadow against the light of the sky, other parts were mingled in the deepened indigo, and seemed as it were blended with the heavens, – strongly reminding us, while we looked at the Cross below, of the connection between this and another world ... Objects can derive a character from the state of mind in which they are viewed.11
The tradition was therefore already well established but Turner’s treatment of the subject was probably particularly indebted to Lord Byron (1788–1824), whose poetry tourists were apt to quote during their visit to the Eternal City.12 Byron had first the explored the theme of the Colosseum by moonlight in Manfred (1817):
I do remember me, that in my youth,
When I was wandering, – upon such a night
I stood within the Coliseum’s wall
’Midst the chief relices of almighty Rome;
The trees which grew along the broken arches
Waved dark in the blue midnight, and the stars shone through the rents of ruin;
And thou didst shine, thou rolling moon, upon
All of this, and cast a wide and tender light,
Which soften’d down the hoar austerity
Of rugged desolation, and fill’d up,
As ’twere anew, the gaps of centuries;
Leaving that beautiful which still was so,
And making that which was not, till the place
Became religion, and the heart ran o’er
With silent worship of the great of old.13
More recently in 1818, just prior to Turner’s first Italian tour, he had published Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), which contained the lines:
Arches on arches! as it were that Rome,
Collecting the chief trophies of her line,
Would build up all her triumphs in one dome,
Her Coliseum stands; the moonbeams shine
As ‘twere its natural torches, for divine
Should be the light which streams here to illume
This long-explored but still exhaustless mine
Of contemplation; and the azure gloom
Of an Italian night, where the deep skies assume
Hues which have words, and speak to ye of Heaven,
Floats o’er this vast and wondrous monument,
And shadows forth its glory.14
With its velvety blue sky, dusky half-glimpsed spaces and eerie white highlights, Turner’s scene perfectly reflects Byron’s verses as well as his own individual interests in the spirit of place and the emotional power of light. Like many drawings within this sketchbook, it has been executed over a washed grey background and Turner has achieved a synthesis of technique and mood, using white gouache to create opaque pale highlights over the sombre mass of the ruins. The Colosseum itself has been blocked in using a liquid red wash, enlivened in places with touches of orange, pink, lemon yellow and brown. Cecilia Powell has described this treatment as suggestive of a place of death. The Stations of the Cross, highlighted in ghostly white, resemble tombstones, and the shadowy arcades and sepulchral vaults suggest catacombs.15 This funereal sensibility finds an echo in a passage by the American landscape painter, Thomas Cole (1801–1848) who wrote in 1832:
But he who would see and feel the grandeur of the Colosseum must spend his hour there at night, when the moon is shedding over it its magic splendour. Let him ascend to its higher terraces, at that pensive time, and gaze down into the abyss, or hang his eyes uopn the ruinous ridge, where it gleams in the moon-rays, and charges boldy against the deep blue heaven. The mighty spectacle, mysterious and dark, opens beneath the eye more like some awful dream than an earthly reality, – a vision of the valley and shadow of death, rather than the substantial work of man.16
Turner revisited the theme of Italy by moonlight in three later vignette illustrations for Rogers’s Italy (see Tate D27676, D27680 and D17682; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 159, 163 and 165) and in his later watercolours of Venice (see for example, Tate D32222 and D32176; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII c 3 and CCCXVI a 39).
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.
Shanes 1998, p.4.
Venning 2003, p.[160].
See for example Wilton 1982, pp.23–4, Holcomb 1983, p.52, Powell 1987, p.16, Liversidge and Edwards 1996, p.77, and Cecilia Powell’s reply to Shanes 1998, p.4.
J.W. Goethe, Italian Journey, 1786–1788, W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (trans.), Middlesex and Victoria 1962,p.168.
Marianna Stark, Travels in Europe, 9th edition, London 1836, p.219.
Ibid., p.134.
See Richard Wilson, The Colosseum by moonlight, reproduced in Raymond Keaveney, Views of Rome from the Thomas Ashby Collection in the Vatican Library, exhibition catalogue, Smithsonian Institution, Washington 1988, p.[127].
H.W. Williams, Travels in Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands, vol.I, Edinburgh 1820, pp.299–302. See Gage 1987 p.60.
Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard, The Colosseum, London 2005, p.3.
Quoted in Blayney Brown 192, p.129.
Powell 1998, p.33.
Thomas Cole, Notes at Naples, 1832, quoted in Keaveney 1988, p.126.
Blank; inscribed by unknown hands in pencil ‘13’ centre, and ‘[?Mts] 2’ and ’33 | 2 | 66’centre, parallel with right-hand edge, and ‘CLXXXIX. 13’ bottom centre, and stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 13’ bottom centre.

Nicola Moorby
October 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Colosseum, Rome, by Moonlight 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, October 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-colosseum-rome-by-moonlight-r1132462, accessed 24 May 2024.