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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The Roman Campagna with Ponte Molle in the Distance 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The Roman Campagna with Ponte Molle in the Distance 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 45
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 256 x 404 mm
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–D16131; Turner Bequest CLXXXVII 34–5, 41–43). The work depicts the River Tiber on the northern outskirts of Rome with the Ponte Molle, an ancient bridge also known as the Ponte Milvio, in the middle distance.1 To the far left is the Monte Mario with the Villa Mellini amidst the trees on the crest of the hill and the Villa Madama positioned half way up the slopes on the side. Turner’s viewpoint appears to be from Monte Parioli, the hill to the west of the Fontana dell’Acqua Acetosa, now the location of the Villa Glori park. A related series of sketches can be found in the St Peter’s sketchbook (see Tate D16217–D16226; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 35–40). A couple of these include the unidentified building in the right-hand foreground of this watercolour (see Tate D16219 and D16223; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 36a and 38a). Further studies of the Campagna and the Ponte Molle dating from the 1819 Italian tour can be found throughout the Small Roman C. Studies sketchbook (see for example Tate D16464; Turner Bequest CXC 49).
By the nineteenth century, exploration of the city’s environs had become as much part of the Roman experience as its architecture and monuments. Turner’s forays into the Campagna followed a long artistic tradition established during the seventeenth century by Claude Lorrain (circa 1600–1682) and Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). The two French masters had famously made a number of sketching trips along the banks of the Tiber north of the city; indeed the countryside between the Porta del Popolo and the Ponte Molle had popularly become known as the ‘Promenade de Poussin’. Turner, in particular, admired the work of Claude Lorrain whose paintings such as Landscape near Rome, with a View of the Ponte Molle, 1645 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), combined motifs studied on the spot with an idealised vision of landscape. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, artists in search of authentic Italian landscape continued to follow the precedent for drawing and painting the Campagna and during the 1820s a small European coterie began to focus on painting in the open air.2 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 empirical 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.
Turner’s watercolour studies of the Campagna share a number of pictorial similarities with the work of these en plein air artists.3 The landscapes he depicts are often wide, open spaces, devoid of figures, where the key compositional interest is provided by the winding river, distant mountain ranges or solitary ancient structures. There is also a similar focus on the broad expanse of sky and the transient effects of light. Yet there is no evidence that the artist actually 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 In this work, Turner has first sketched the basic composition in pencil before blocking in broad washes of watercolour. The sky for example has been painted with liquid washes of limpid blue, suffused in the bottom left-hand corner with yellow to indicate the light of the sun rising in the east. In the foreground, the textural effect of rough ground and vegetation has been achieved with brushstrokes of drier pigment and energetic manipulation of the paint. Despite the apparent naturalism of the scene, there are elements of Claudian artifice. The hazy blue of the distant line of mountains, for example, repeats the atmospheric effects of aerial perspective which characterise much of Claude’s work.
For a detailed sketch of the bridge prior to 1805 see William Marlow (1740–1813), Ponte Molle, pencil on paper, Tate T09173.
Peter Galassi, Corot in Italy: Open-Air Painting and the Classical-Landscape Tradition, New Haven and London 1991, pp.120–2.
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.
Technical notes:
The watercolour has suffered from overexposure in the past, as first noted by Finberg. Narrow strips protected by a mount around the edges of the picture indicate the change in colour. Long detached from the Naples, Rome C. Studies sketchbook, the sheet was perhaps once folio 45 (see the concordance in the introduction).

Nicola Moorby
March 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The Roman Campagna with Ponte Molle in the Distance 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-with-ponte-molle-in-the-distance-r1132395, accessed 22 May 2024.