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

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner View of the Forum, Rome, with a Rainbow 1819

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
View of the Forum, Rome, with a Rainbow 1819
Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 46
Pencil, watercolour, gouache and grey watercolour wash on white wove paper, 230 x 367 mm
Stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 46’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The subject of this coloured study is a view of the Roman Forum, the heart of political, commercial and judicial life in ancient Rome. The central focus of the composition is the remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, a building dating from the fifth century BC of which only three Corinthian columns and a surmounting section of entablature from the first century AD survive. The prominent edifice beyond is the portico of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina with the façade of San Lorenzo in Miranda rising above it. This Roman temple was first dedicated to Faustina, the wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius in the second century AD but was later converted into a church following the belief that St Lawrence had been condemned to death there. During the seventeenth century, the antique remains were incorporated within a newly designed Baroque exterior. Also partially visible to the right is part of the adjacent Church of Santi Cosama e Damiano with the cupola of the Temple of Romulus and the massive barrel arched vaults of the Basilica of Constantine. On the far left-hand side is the Torre dei Milize, and on the far right, the Church of Santa Maria Liberatrice, which was demolished at the beginning of the twentieth century during excavation of the Forum. Like many drawings within the Rome C. Studies sketchbook, the composition has been executed over a washed grey background. Turner first sketched a rough pencil outline before more fully developing the view in watercolour and gouache applied with great vigour and energy, particularly to describe the foreground vegetation. Andrew Wilton has suggested that the striking effect of dark ochre and grey masonry against the intensely blue sky recalls the work of contemporary Italian vedute artists, such as Carlo Labruzzi (1748–1817), Antonio Zucchi (1726–1795) and Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820).1
During his 1819 sojourn in Rome, Turner made a thorough study of the buildings and monuments of the Forum from a host of different angles. The Rome: C. Studies sketchbook contains a number of detailed compositions, principally featuring views of the eastern end with the Colosseum, and the Arches of Constantine and Titus (see D16351, D16354, D16355, D16365, D16367, D16370, D16372, D16376, D16379, D16389; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 25, 28, 29, 38, 40, 43, 44, 47, 50, 58). Pencil sketches related to this watercolour can found within the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (see Tate D15395–D15396; Turner Bequest CLXXXII 52–52a). The design is also similar to the view by John ‘Warwick’ Smith, Campo Vaccino from Select Views in Italy, copied by Turner in the Italian Guide Book sketchbook (see Tate D13966; Turner Bequest CLXXII 19, second from top right).
Despite the topographical accuracy of the view, the real focus of Turner’s watercolour is the dramatic and tonal effects of light. A great shaft of sun illuminates the Temple of Castor and Pollux and other antiquities, but leaves the lower slopes of the Palatine Hill plunged within deep shadow. The bright, opaque colours and freely applied brushwork creates a sense of freshness, enhancing the atmospheric contrast between the crumbling, skeletal ruins and the glowing vitality of the natural world. It has been suggested that like Turner’s painting of the Colosseum by moonlight (see D16339; Turner Bequest CLXXXIX 13), this treatment captures the spirit of Lord Byron’s vision of Rome in Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published 1818).2 The juxtaposition of fragmentary classical remains with vibrant naturalistic effects of light and weather find parallels within Byron’s description of the decaying relics of a powerful empire and the themes of the passage of time, transience and renewal. In particular, the inclusion of the rainbow, a symbol of regeneration and life (for example, in Christian iconography) recalls the poet’s belief in the future political freedom and revival of Italy as a unified nation.3
Wilton 1979, p.143.
Blayney Brown 1992, p.128 and Liversidge and Edwards 1996, pp.76–7.
Blank; inscribed by unknown hands in pencil ‘46’ centre, ‘CLXXXIX | 46’ bottom left, descending left-hand edge and ‘?[B of R.| 239]’and ‘Rome – The Forum’ bottom right, and stamped in black ‘CLXXXIX 46’ bottom centre.

Nicola Moorby
October 2009

How to cite

Nicola Moorby, ‘View of the Forum, Rome, with a Rainbow 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-view-of-the-forum-rome-with-a-rainbow-r1132490, accessed 23 September 2021.