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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 43
Gouache, pencil and watercolour on white wove paper, 252 x 402 mm
Inscribed by ?the artist in pencil ‘95’ top right, inverted
Inscribed by John Ruskin in blue ink ‘43’ bottom right, descending right-hand edge
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXVII 43’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
A large number of studies from the Naples: Rome C. Studies sketchbook represent variant views of the Roman Campagna, the area of countryside encircling the outskirts of the Eternal City (Tate D16122–D16139; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 34–51). This is one of six such compositions where Turner has developed the landscape in watercolour (see also Tate D16122–D16123, D16129–D16130, D16133; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 34–35, 41–2, 45). Thomas Ashby was the first to identify the subject of this work as the Tiber Valley looking south from Monte Testaccio, an artificial hill in southern Rome constructed from a Roman pottery dump.1 Dominating the foreground is a surviving section of the Aurelian walls which during the early nineteenth century still ran from the Porta San Paolo to the River Tiber. Today this area is a built–up industrial and residential district but in Turner’s day the river meandered through countryside which was virtually uninhabited, until it met the sea at Ostia. There is a small tower visible at the bend of the river near the centre of the composition, and the grey mass of building beyond on the left represents San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Walls), one of the four great papal basilicas of Rome.2 Turner saw this ancient medieval church prior to its almost complete destruction by fire in July 1823. It was subsequently reconstructed with a similar façade although with a new portico and a different bell-tower. In the foreground, the artist has included several human figures as well as the indistinct but recognisable forms of two chickens scratching in the dirt.3
The composition of the watercolour is based upon accurate topographical records of the vista looking south from the Aventine Hill and Monte Testaccio. Turner made a number of swift, on–the–spot pencil sketches see the St Peter’s sketchbook (Tate D16256; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 55v) and the Rome and Florence sketchbook (Tate D16494–D16511; Turner Bequest CXCI 6–14a), and in particular, there is one drawing which mirrors the view exactly (see Tate D16497; Turner Bequest CXCI 7a). The principal focus of the coloured version, however, is the transformative effects of the warm Italian light on the landscape. The low position of the sun in the west, and the long shadows cast by the figures, trees and buildings indicate the lateness of the hour and the limpid blue of the sky is suffused by an aureole of yellow surrounding the pale disk of the setting sun. Despite the naturalism of the effects there is no evidence that Turner actually ever painted in the open air during his time in Italy. Several contemporary sources testify that his preference was for drawing on the spot and for colouring indoors away from the motif, since it took up ‘too much time to colour in the open-air’ and ‘he could make 15 or 16 pencil sketches to one colored’.4 It is likely therefore that this work was painted away from the motif, fusing memory, empirical knowledge and imagination. As was his usual practice Turner first sketched the general composition in pencil before adding washes of watercolour. The underdrawing visible beneath the paint reveals that the original position of the sun was further to the left.
Peter Galassi has compared Turner’s Roman watercolours with the open air paintings of a European artistic community which flourished in Rome during the 1820s.5 Unlike earlier topographical artists who had focused their depiction of the Campagna on images of selected landmarks, nineteenth century en plein air painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) and his contemporaries developed a new approach rooted in naturalistic observation. Working directly from nature they produced panoramic views of vast barren spaces, deserted except for distant hills and isolated ruins which served to emphasise the grand emptiness of the terrain and the broad expanse of open sky.
Ashby 1925, opposite p.26.
The other papal basilica churches are St Peter’s, San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore.
Wilton 1982, p.42.
Letter to John Soane from his son, 15 November 1819, quoted in Cecilia Powell Turner in the South: Rome, Naples, Florence, New Haven and London 1987, p.50.
Peter Galassi, Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition, New Haven and London 1991, pp.120–2.
Technical notes:
Long detached from the Naples, Rome C. Studies sketchbook, this sheet was perhaps once folio 43 (see the concordance in the introduction).
Blank, save for inscriptions by unknown hands in pencil ‘28’ centre and ‘CLXXXVII. 43’ bottom right; stamped in black ‘CLXXXVII 43’ and Turner Bequest monogram bottom centre

Nicola Moorby
March 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Roman Campagna from Monte Testaccio, Sunset 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, March 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-roman-campagna-from-monte-testaccio-sunset-r1132394, accessed 22 May 2024.