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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Forum, for Rogers's 'Italy' c.1826-7

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Forum, for Rogers’s ‘Italy’ circa 1826–7
Turner Bequest CCLXXX 158
Pencil, watercolour and pen and ink, approximately 136 x 150 mm on white wove paper, 247 x 307 mm
Stamped in black ‘CCLXXX 158’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The Forum was engraved by Edward Goodall and appears as the head-piece to the twenty-eighth section of Rogers’s Italy, entitled ‘Rome’.1 In the opening verses of this section, which appear just beneath Turner’s design, Rogers narrates his ecstatic first moments in Rome:
I am in Rome! Oft as the morning-ray
Visits these eyes, waking at once I cry,
Whence this excess of joy? What has befallen me?
And from within a thrilling voice replies,
Thou art in Rome!
(Italy, p.137)
Although the majority of this section is devoted to historical ruminations, Rogers does provide a brief and unusually descriptive account of the Roman Forum:
But what the narrow space
Just underneath? In many a heap the ground
Heaves, as tho’ Ruin in a frantic mood
Had done his utmost. Here and there appears,
As left to shew his handy-work not ours,
An idle column, a half-buried arch,
A wall of some great temple. – It was once,
And long, the centre of their Universe,
The Forum – whence a mandate, eagle-winged,
Went to the ends of the earth. Let us descend
Slowly. At every step much may be lost.
The very dust we tread, stirs as with life;
And not a breath but from the ground sends up
Something of human grandeur.
(Italy, p.140)
Turner’s vignette provides a wealth of specific detail to illustrate Rogers’s rather general description of Rome’s ruins. The viewer gazes through the Arch of Titus, looking north-west across the Forum towards the Capitoline Hill. The three surviving columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux stand nearby, framing the more distant Temple of Saturn, which has been moved southwards and turned ninety degrees. To the right are the remains of the Temple of Vespasian and the top portion of the Arch of Septimius Severus.2 In order to produce this complex architectural composition, Turner has compressed space and distorted topographical details. His own on-the-spot sketches of the Forum in 1819 attentively reproduce the actual topography and appearance of the site (see the Albano, Nemi, Rome and St Peters sketchbooks, Tate; Turner Bequest CLXXXII and CLXXXVIII). The appearance of the ruins is also somewhat misleading. French excavation projects during the early nineteenth century had cleared the soil surrounding many of the ruins and exposed their bases. The remains in The Forum, however, still appear to be half-buried in the Roman soil, suggesting that Turner may be exaggerating their ruinous appearance to recall earlier views of Rome by Piranesi or others.3 Whilst his adjustments therefore may be inaccurate, they dramatically enhance the sense of discovery and romance conveyed by this carefully composed vignette.
On the right side of the composition, a procession of monks can be seen moving along the Via Sacra. Two of the men appear to be carrying a coffin or bier, signalling that this is a funeral procession. Turner’s decision to include this detail may have been inspired by the section that immediately follows ‘The Forum’ in Italy, which is entitled ‘The Funeral.’ It may also be intended to express the common perception among many nineteenth-century Britons that Rome was home to a dead civilisation.4 Turner produced two preparatory watercolour studies for The Forum (see Tate D27620 and D27621; Turner Bequest CCLXXX 103 and 104). Both images show contemporary Roman life and ritual set against the backdrop of decaying classical ruins and Turner incorporated elements from each into his final composition.
Although Turner may have referred to his Italian sketchbooks of 1819, the vignette does not appear to have been directly modelled after any of these on-site drawings. Instead, The Forum bears its greatest compositional debt to the oil painting Forum Romanum, which Turner produced and exhibited in 1826 (Tate N00504).5 In both cases, Turner uses the Arch of Titus as a framing device and includes a religious process to heighten the sense of contrast between ancient and modern Rome.
Samuel Rogers, Italy, London 1830, p.137; W.G. Rawlinson, The Engraved Work of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., vol.II, London 1913, no.363. There are two impressions in Tate’s collection (T04653 and T04654).
Shanes, Joll, Warrell and others 2000, p.183.
Adele Holcomb, ‘J.M.W. Turner’s Illustrations to the Poets’, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of California, Los Angeles 1966, p.55.
Holcomb 1969, p.408 note 19 and Piggott 1993, pp.36–7.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, no.233.
Inscribed by an unknown hand in pencil ‘15’ and ‘10 a’ centre and CCLXXX.158’ bottom centre
Stamped in black ‘CCLXXX 158’ lower centre

Meredith Gamer
August 2006

How to cite

Meredith Gamer, ‘The Forum, for Rogers’s ‘Italy’ c.1826–7 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, August 2006, 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-forum-for-rogerss-italy-r1133313, accessed 21 April 2019.