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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner The So-Called Temple of Minerva Medica, Rome, at Sunset 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
The So-Called Temple of Minerva Medica, Rome, at Sunset 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 35
Watercolour, gouache and grey watercolour wash on white wove ‘Whatman’ paper, 230 x 368 mm
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 35’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The subject of this coloured study, the so-called Temple of Minerva Medica, was described by Charlotte Eaton in her travel guide to Rome, a series of letters written in 1817–8 and published in 1820:
In a lonely vineyard on the Esquiline Hill, stands the picturesque ruin of the Temple of Minerva Medica. Its form, though circular without, is decagonal within. It is built of brick, and is now stripped of every ornament. But the yawning chasms in its vaulted roof, the wild weeds that wave over it, the fallen masses that choke it up, the total destruction that threatens, and the solitude that surrounds it, give it an interest and a charm it probably never could have owned in a state of perfect preservation.1
The Temple was one of Rome’s most frequently visited monuments, yet the building itself is something of a mystery. Popularly deriving its name from a statue found on site depicting the goddess Minerva with a snake (representative of the medical symbol of the caduceus) the circular structure has also been variously described as a nymphaeum or bath house and a dining pavilion.2 In the nineteenth century the area was a wasteland of Roman ruins and the Temple lay within a modern vineyard which Eustace recorded also contained ‘various subterranean vaulted apartments, some more, some less ornamented, the receptacles of the dead of various families.’3 Today, the circular ruin stands between the railway tracks leading into Termini station and the present-day via Giovanni Giolotti, very close to the Porta Maggiore (also known as the Porta Praenestina).
In 1823, Marianne Colston wrote that the combination of the Temple’s ruined architecture with wild plants growing over it ‘presents the most picturesque and lovely object to the painter’.4 In fact, by the nineteenth century it had become a popular motif for artists, the people according to James Whiteside who had ‘succeeded the warriors and emperors who once dwelt in the eternal city.’5 Turner was familiar with the appearance of the monument through the work of others such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi,6 Richard Wilson,7 and James Hakewill.8 He had also depicted it prior to seeing it for himself, as the subject in one of the plates of the Liber Studiorum, The Temple of Minerva Medica (‘Hindoo Devotions’ or ‘The Hindoo Worshipper’) circa 1808 (see Tate D08128; Turner Bequest CXVII A), engraved by Robert Dunkarton, 1811 (see Tate A00957). During his 1819 visit to Rome he made numerous studies of the structure from a variety of angles, see the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (Tate D15401; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 55), the St Peter’s sketchbook (Tate D16318; Turner Bequest CLXXXVIII 87a), and the Small Roman Colour Studies sketchbook (Tate D16436–D16438; Turner Bequest CXC 27a–29). His sketches shows that at this time the building still had the partial remains of a vaulted roof. This, however, subsequently collapsed in 1828.
This composition depicts the Temple of Minerva Medica from the east. In the background to the right can be seen the distant towers of the Porta San Lorenzo (also known as the Porta Tiburtina), and a series of arches belonging to the internal gallery of part of the Aurelian Walls (which Turner has mistakenly drawn as an aqueduct).9 The close-up view of the decaying structure is particularly close to two studies in the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (Tate D15412–D15413; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 60a-61). Another watercolour featuring the Temple from a distance can also be found within this sketchbook (see D16363; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 36). Like many drawings within the Rome C. Studies sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. There is no evidence of preliminary drawing in pencil and the scene seems to have been entirely developed in watercolour and gouache. Turner’s use of colour is naturalistic and local, and his handling of the paint is largely loose and free. The delicate pink and yellow blush of the sunset sky in the west provides an evocative backdrop to the melancholy sight of the crumbling ruin, overgrown with weeds and moss. John Ruskin suggested that it was ‘just possible’ that Turner executed the study en plein air because the colouring was so ‘Fine in effect, but careless’.10 However, as Cecilia Powell has discussed it is more likely that the watercolour was completed indoors from memory (for further discussion, see the introduction to the sketchbook).11
Charlotte Eaton, Rome in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh 1820, p.245.
Amanda Claridge, Judith Toms, Tony Cubberley, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Oxford 1998, p.357.
John Chetwode Eustace, A Classical Tour Through Italy, London 1815, 3rd edition, vol.I, p.391.
Marianne Colston, Journal of a Tour in France, Switzerland and Italy in the Years 1819, 1820 and 1821, vol.1, London 1823, p.150.
James Whiteside, The Vicissitudes of the Eternal City: Or, Ancient Rome with Notes Classical and Historical, London 1849, p.94.
See Luigi Ficacci, Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, Köln and London 2000, nos.62, 165, 945, reproduced pp.94, 185, 727.
See Turner’s copy of Wilson’s River Landscape with Bathers, Cattle and Ruin in the Wilson sketchbook (Tate D01209–10; Turner Bequest XXXVIII 92–3; see also Ian Warrell, Blandine Chavanne and Michael Kitson, Turner et le Lorrain, exhibition catalogue, Musée des beaux-arts, Nancy 2002, p.50.
See Tony Cubberley and Luke Herrmann, Twilight of the Grand Tour: A Catalogue of the Drawings by James Hakewill in the British School at Rome Library, Rome 1992, no.3.29, reproduced p.210.
Ashby 1925, p.25 and Powell 1987, p.50.
John Ruskin, ‘Catalogue of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery’, London 1857, reproduced in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.), vol.XIII, p.298.
Powell 1984, pp.124 and 475 note 36; and Powell 1987, p.50.
Blank; inscribed by an unknown hand in pencil ‘4’ centre right, parallel with right-hand edge, and stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 35’ bottom right.

Nicola Moorby
October 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘The So-Called Temple of Minerva Medica, Rome, at Sunset 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-so-called-temple-of-minerva-medica-rome-at-sunset-r1132480, accessed 27 May 2024.