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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Colosseum, Rome, from the West 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Colosseum, Rome, from the West 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 37
Pencil, gouache, and watercolour on white wove ‘Valleyfield’ paper, 229 x 368 mm
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 37’ 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 between 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 angles 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 visiting the interior.3 This sketch depicts a view of the western façade of the building from a spot near to the Temple of Venus and Roma. Barely visible on the far right is the Arch of Constantine and the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo on the Caelian Hill which have been left uncoloured. This particular viewpoint had the advantage of contrasting the lower right-hand side with the high surviving outer wall on the left-hand side, and was popular with topographical artists, for example, the Swiss painter, Louis Ducros (1748–1810), Vue du Colisée (Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne).4 Turner used the same spot for another view of the Colosseum with the Arch of Constantine (Tate D16354; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 28). Thomas Ashby noted that the study pre-dates the erection of the abutment of bricks built during the1820s under Pope Pius VII to shore up the outer ring wall on this side.5 As Cecilia Powell has discussed, Turner’s depiction was also strongly influenced by eighteenth-century models such as the etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi.6 The overwhelming physical presence of the building, as well as the dramatic play of light and shadow recalls Piranesi’s plates for the Vedute di Roma.7
Like many pages within this sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner first drew the outline in pencil before partially working up the view with watercolour and touches of white gouache. John Ruskin described it as ‘first-rate’ and stated that the ‘slightly sketched stones on the left, and arrangement of sky, are absolutely necessary to redeem the formality of the circular mass’.8 Following his 1819 tour, Turner produced a finished watercolour of the Colosseum for his great friend and patron, Walter Fawkes, Rome: the Colosseum, 1820 (British Museum, London).9 The painting faithfully follows the design of another drawing within this sketchbook (see Tate D16349; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 23). However, the colour scheme is perhaps based at least in part upon this study, as well as images on other pages (see Tate D16345 and D16346; CLXXXIX 19 and 20).
For further sketches of the Colosseum, see another page from this sketchbook (D16349; CLXXXIX 23).
See Moorby 2009, p.115.
John Chetwode Eustace, A Classical Tour Through Italy, London 1815, 3rd edition, vol.I, pp.374–5.
Ibid., p.375.
Reproduced in colour in Pierre Chessex, Lindsay Stainton, Luc Boissonnas et al., Images of the Grand Tour: Louis Ducros, exhibition catalogue, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne 1985, no.3. See also Israel Silvestre (1621–1691), The Colosseum (Vatican Library, Rome), reproduced in Raymond Keaveney, Views of Rome from the Thomas Ashby Collection in the Vatican Library, exhibition catalogue, Smithsonian Institution, Washington 1988, no.23, p.[119]; and Vanvitelli (Gaspar van Wittel, 16523–1736), The Colosseum, oil painting (Galleria Sabauda, Turin, Italy).
Ashby 1925, p.27.
Powell 1987, pp.107–9.
See for example Luigi Ficacci, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Köln and London 2000, nos.929 and 997, reproduced pp.717, 755.
John Ruskin, ‘Catalogue of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery’, London 1857, reproduced in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.), vol.XIII, p.299.
Wilton 1979, no.723.
Blank, except for traces of watercolour; inscribed by an unknown hand in pencil ‘10’ centre right, parallel with right-hand edge, and stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 37’ bottom centre right

Nicola Moorby
July 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Colosseum, Rome, from the West 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-colosseum-rome-from-the-west-r1132482, accessed 19 May 2024.