Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article gives some thought to a major painting by J.M.W.Turner, Rome from Mount Aventine, sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 3 December 2014 for £30.3m. Most previous accounts have accepted its topography more-or-less at face value: It turns out to be intriguingly deviant.
I spent most of my teaching career extolling the imperative of drawing. Not altogether for artistic purposes; rather because drawing is simply the best of all possible ways of getting to understand what one is seeing. In fact, without drawing, many of my students appear not to have seen what was in front of them at all! We might stand before a river bridge, with buildings on either hand and figures in various situations. But later if I asked what was the bridge like? How many arches did it have? What were the buildings like? How many storeys? How many windows; What decoration did they have? How many figures; What were the people wearing? What were they doing? They had no idea. But if they spent some time describing what they were seeing; then they were better; if they spent some time drawing; then unerring.
Turner is perhaps one of the most thorough-going exponents ever of the principle of understanding through drawing. Rome was a particularly important subject for him, so it was something of an occasion for Turner’s astonishing painting of Rome from Mount Aventine to be exhibited at Sotheby’s in London before it was auctioned on 3 December 2014. The fact that it fetched a world record price for the artist of £30.3 million pounds seems on reflection little enough. As extraordinary a price as that plainly is, it was surely good value. Although it is the second most expensive old master ever sold, after a Rubens, it doesn’t even make the top twenty top prices overall for works of art, all of which are modern or contemporary. Considering the prices fetched by Francis Bacon or Picasso, Rome from the Aventine looks like the bargain of the decade.
I do have to say that in seeing the painting again, I found it quite perplexing. For despite the fact that Turner devoted considerable care in sketching the view, the painting presents numerous problems in relation to its topography. Despite producing a (very beautiful) special catalogue for the painting, and making some feature of the detail in the panorama (albeit with some errors), Sotheby’s does not remark upon the fact (nor it seems, anyone previously) that Turner departs from his own topographic and architectural knowledge in quite major ways. An expert on Rome might easily conclude that Turner had a poor knowledge of the city and its buildings. In fact he had the highest quality of information in his sketches. Sublimesites is dedicated to the principle that topography matters: The fact that he used it loosely here is provoking, but at the very least we have to proceed from the fact that it was deliberate and intentional.
Sotheby’s 2014 catalogue gives a detailed context for the painting. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 as No.144 called ‘Rome from Mount Aventine.’ It was bought by Turner’s important later patron H.A.J. Munro of Novar (1794-1864) and was catalogued in that collection in 1865 as ‘No.121 View from Mount Aventine. Painted by Mr Turner for Mr Munro, on the spot’. This was repeated when the picture was sold from the collection at Christie’s on 6 April 1878, lot 98 as ‘Rome: View from Mount Aventine, 36 x 49 in. Painted for Mr. Munro on the spot. Exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1836’. Pretty much every modern commentator has dismissed out of hand the literal possibility of it being painted on the spot, although it is generally agreed that it was probably begun in Rome in 1828. It is the only one of the thirteen Turner paintings listed in the 1865 catalogue for which an on-the-spot origin is claimed.
Walter Thornbury gave further details in his biography of Turner published in 1862: ‘When Mr Munro gave Turner a commission for a view of modern Rome from a fine point that included the Tiber and some of the chief antiquities, the artist employed some time in looking for the place indicated, surprising Sir Charles Eastlake, who was with him by his anxiety to discover some particular spot. He had been particularly anxious as to what Mr Munro wanted – “a copy” or an ideal picture. A ‘copy’ was asked for, and a copy he did; so faithful, indeed, has the painter been in this beautiful picture, that he has, even at some peril to his success, introduced in the left-hand foreground a long monotonous row of modern houses; but these he has so cleverly varied with slant shadows, that they become pleasing, and lead on the eye to where it should go – the matchless distance.’
Thornbury tends to be somewhat journalistic with his information, and it is wise to be wary of accepting anything that he says at face value, but he did take information from Munro, who was still alive when the book was published. Taking this together with the comments in the Munro catalogues, which must have come direct from the collector, we have at the very least to infer that the painting was a commission – Munro’s catalogue says that it was painted for him – and that there was some substantive circumstance that caused him to say that the commission was executed ‘on the spot’.
Turner sketched in the area twice, in 1819 and 1828. His Roman sketches were studied systematically in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Cecilia Powell, first for her PhD thesis at the Courtauld Institute (1984) and then for her book Turner in the South (Yale University Press, 1987). They have recently been resurveyed by Nicola Moorby for the Tate’s new online catalogue of the Turner Bequest. This is as yet a work in progress and to date only Moorby’s treatment of the 1819 sketches has been published: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/first-italian-tour-r1132344#synopsis Sotheby’s 2014 catalogue reproduces the 1828 sketches that are most closely related to the painting, but does not give the kind of detailed topographic consideration that characterises Powell’s and Moorby’s approach. Nor does it consider any of the 1819 sketches, nor any other sketches in the vicinity whether of 1819 or 1828. This is exactly the kind of grounding that Sublimesites enjoys most in considering its topics, so let us take a circumambulatory approach to Turner’s viewpoint, before clambering up the hill to take a proper look at what there is to see.
Mount Aventine is the southernmost of Rome’s seven hills, with low cliffs looking over the Tiber on its western flank where terraces give onto a panorama that stretches from Trastevere and St Peter’s, over the river and Ponte Rotto to the old city crowded with domes and campaniles, and on to the Capitoline Hill and Forum. It is perhaps surprising that Sotheby’s did not offer us a photograph of the view as it is today. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation I was able to make the trip to Rome in April 2015 and to follow exactly in Turner’s Aventino footsteps. The British School in Rome negotiated access for me to the terrace of the Instituto Nazionale di Studi Romani and permission to photograph the view as it is today.
Turner made hundreds of sketches in Rome in 1819, and one strong impression given by the sketchbooks of that year is how systematically he walked around the city looking for panoramas. He seems to have taken in the Aventine at least twice.
One excursion is documented in the Rome and Florence sketchbook (TB CXCI) recording a walk south from the old city, stopping at Tiber Island and taking views down the river past the island to the Aventine (2, 3, 4) and the port quay of the Ripa Grande on the right bank (5, 5a), working his way south looking for a panorama of the city. In passing along the riverside below the Aventine he stopped to make a sketch of the view back to the Ponte Rotto, Temple of Hercules Victor (called ‘Temple of Vesta’ by Turner and until recently) and the Capitol from more-or-less exactly the same angle of view as in the painting (4a), but rather more restricted in its scope because of the lower angle of view.
Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the Rome and Florence sketchbook (TB CXCI):
A second excursion in the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXXII) documents Turner walking out of the old city past Mount Aventine, again looking for a panorama over the city. On this occasion he started with a sketch of the Temple of Hercules Victor (37a), continued with a view from the end of the Ponte Rotto, looking up the Tiber to the Ponte Cestio (41), and made detailed sketches from the southern foot of the Aventine along the river with the Ripa to the right and the Temple of Hercules Victor and Capitoline in the distance (41a) before taking the view from a more elevated vantage point on the northern slopes of the Aventine (42a-43,44). Turner’s exact viewpoint is halfway up the Clivo di Rocca Savella which climbs up the northern slope of the Aventine from the river. At this time this was the only publically accessible viewpoint on the Aventine. Today a much better vantage point is offered in the Giardino degli Arancio at the top of the hill. This only became a public park, however in 1937, so Turner had to make do with the lower viewpoint. The cobbled street is flanked by walls but it is still possible to appreciate how the view opens up St Peter’s to the left with the whole of the old city and the distant crest of Monte Mario across the Ponte Rotto to close with the Capitoline Hill and the Torre Milizie to the right. He laid this down with quite some care, certainly sufficiently so to provide him with the basis of a finished composition had he found the occasion.
Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the Albano, Nemi, Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXXI):
Yet another group of sketches in the area can be found in the St Peter’s sketchbook (TB CLXXXVIII). This includes a repeat sketch of the Isolo Tiberina (51), two careful sketches of the Ponte Rotto (52, 52a), a careful study looking up to the cliff-top churches of the Aventine from the right bank of the Tiber (56) and a series of sketches again exploring the distant view of the city from the south (54a et seq). Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the St Peter’s sketchbook (TB CLXXXVIII):
One final sketch in the area is a study in the Rome: C Studies sketchbook, TB CXC 37, recording the view from the Ponte Cestio, looking down the Tiber to the Ponte Rotto, with Palatine Hill beyond.
So when Turner returned to Rome in 1828 he brought with him a thorough prior knowledge of the Mount Aventine area, already filed away in a stock of excellent sketches. In revisiting the area, his first thought was to retrace his own earlier footsteps. These sketches were not recognised as Rome in the original catalogue of the Turner Bequest, and although correct identifications will no doubt be made independently when Nicola Moorby’s survey of the 1828 material appears in the Tate’s new online catalogue of Turner’s sketches and drawings, it is worth giving them a first airing here since they demonstrate the informed consciousness with which he approached the Aventine in 1828.
One of the sketchbooks that Turner used in 1828 is a small marbled notebook with a red leather spine cloth called the Rimini to Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXVIII). He filled this on his way south with sketches at (for example) Bologna, Rimini and Loreto, but in a quite a loose way, leaving numerous blank pages. So when he arrived in Rome he started from the back to work his way through the book filling up the blank versos. His first thought was for the Aventine, and he made his way towards it from the old city pausing at several of his previous viewpoints as he went.
His first sketch was of the Ponte Cestio, looking up the Tiber from the end of the Ponte Rotto (55-54a) which he had sketched in 1819 (TB CLXXXII 41). Secondly he sketched the view to the Aventine from near the Temple of Vesta (54-53a) again returning close to the viewpoint of an 1819 sketch (TB CLXXXVIII 56). Thirdly he sketched the view up the Tiber with the Ripa Grande to the left, from the corner of the terrace of the Chapel of the Knights of Malta (53-52a), finding a more inclusive view on this occasion than on his previous visit in 1819 (TB CXCI 5a). Next he sketched the view up the Tiber from the riverside below the Aventine (52-51a) finding a better angle than his earlier treatment TB CLXXXII 41a, moving a few yards further to the right so as to open up the view of the Ponte Rotto. He continued reacquainting himself with the area by sketching on the Ripa Grande, looking up to the Aventine (51-50a), revisiting the neighbourhood of an 1819 sketch TB CLXXXVIII 56, but from further down the quay, nearer to the Lighthouse built in 1814-15, which appears to the right of the sketch. He finished his survey with an overview of the Aventine and Ripa Grande from the south (49-48a), not quite so far back as the distant sketches that he had made in 1819 (eg TB CLXXXVIII 54a). Click on any image below to open a gallery of drawings from the Rimini to Rome sketchbook (TB CLXXVIII):
Turner’s research allowed him to work out that the best panorama of Rome would be from the string of churches that occupied the cliff edge of the Aventine. From north to south these are Santa Sabina, Santi Alessio e Boniface and the Chapel of the Knights of Malta. It seems plain that he was working out his optimal viewpoint in the sketches from below such as TB CLXXVIII 51-50a, where the Campanile of Santi Alessio and Boniface stands on the centre skyline of the left-hand page, with the apse of the church immediately to the right, and the terrace gardens of the monastery between that and the Chapel of the Knights of Malta which stands proud towards the right. Turner’s determined viewpoint is on the terrace of Sant Alessio, more-or-less between the two masts that piece the skyline in the sketch.
He must have negotiated special permission (as today) to enter the private gardens of Sant Alessio. It might be this that his friend Charles Lock Eastlake remembered when he said that he was surprised how much trouble Turner took to obtain the views that he required. Access is still restricted – the gardens of Santa Sabina, Sant Alessio and the Knights of Malta, are all private. I am grateful to the British School in Rome for negotiating with the Instituto di Studi Romani who now occupy the monastery of Sant Alessio for me to be able to see the view. Very likely Turner would have been obliged to use his contacts – Eastlake was a long-time resident of Rome, and a lynchpin of Roman artistic society – to secure admission.
In Rome Turner had to work hard for his views. One of the enduring impressions left by my recent visit is of how jealously it guards its privacy. Cyclopean palace walls, gargantuan gate piers and massive doorways bar access to its sanctuaries. The whole city is a device to exercise power and patronage, inclusion and exclusion. It is everything to belong, to be allowed in. Even on the Janiculum, Rome’s earliest established vantage-point, attempting a view over St Peter’s from its northern reaches (as one might reasonably expect) leads merely to bafflement and rebuff. Unless that is, one happens to be a member of the Pontificia Universita Urbaniana.
Getting onto the terrace of Sant Alessio was somewhat like threading the Labyrinth. First I joined the British School in Rome [no bad thing, at all!] in order to take advantage of their permissions negotiation service. This secured a letter of invitation from the director of the Instituto. Finding the entrance to the Instituto requires initiation. Having presented myself at the gate to Sant Alessio church I discovered that this was reserved for the Padre Somachi who minister there. I was directed to an inconspicuous gate in a wall down the street. Inside the gate a concierge at a subterranean window demanded to know my business. With my letter I was admitted to a courtyard, where another door gave entrance to the cloister. Another challenge, another explanation and directions to the office of the director. A grand staircase, massive wooden doors, an office door ajar and a warm welcome. Directions back the cloister, an oasis of light and calm, two more massive doors, and then out under the portico and umbrella pines, to dewy grass (take care for the re-seeded patches) and morning sunlight opening the entire panorama of the city. So much, so privileged, and two hours completely undisturbed. Afterwards exiting to the street, where a hundred yards to the right a hundred and fifty tourists In the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta queued in line to take turns to squint through a keyhole in the gate, to catch a glimpse of St Peter’s between some trees.
He turned to a sequence of blank pages of his Rimini to Rome sketchbook (Tate Britain; TB CLXXVIII 4a-5, 5a-6, 7) to make his study of the view. We can locate this sketch precisely on the terrace of Santi Alessio e Boniface, by the angle of view on the lighthouse of the Ripa Grande to the left – with the campanile of San Pietro in Montorio directly beyond, the line of sight of the Dome of Il Gesu over the middle span of the Ponte Rotto, and to the right the aligned Campaniles of the distant Chiesa dei Santi Domenico e Sisto over the nearer Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The relation of these sketches to the painting was established by Cecilia Powell in Turner in the South. Powell does say, however that the panorama synthesises a variety of viewpoints on the Aventine. In fact the panorama is specifically from this terrace, although Turner did, it is apparent utilise its entire length.
The original page size of the Rimini to Rome sketchbook is a modest 3 7/8 x 5 3/16 inches, or 97 x 132 mm, but into that space Turner has crammed an extraordinary amount of detail, and it is fascinating to immerse oneself in that. There are one or two economies, especially with regard to the regular repeating façade of the Ospizio di San Michele on the Ripa Grande to the left, but Turner has set down every bell-tower, dome and distinguishable building exactly as it presents itself to the eye from this point of view. The reader will no doubt prefer to scan across the landmarks for themselves, rather than wade through a lengthy prose listing. Please click on the images below to enlarge. Suffice it to say this sketch is as patient, thorough, and obviously enjoyed a survey that Turner ever set down.
Here are the sketches with detailed identifications of the various landmarks: The text will be more easily readable if you click on the image so as to enlarge it to full size:
We may even note in passing that he distinguishes between the ‘twin’ domes of Sant’ Andrea della Valle and San Carlo ai Catinari in the left centre mid-distance. They are not quite alike, Sant’ Andre has twin pilasters supporting the dome, San Carlo single ones, and although Turner recognised that, he does not quite draw the literal fact, rather he differentiates the effect.
So the sketches are a topographic tour de force and Turner studied the exact form, character, position and alignment of every significant building in the whole field of view. To come to the nub, then, it seems more than a little perplexing that he took very little account of that storehouse of reference, except in the most general terms, in his painting of the scene.
Let’s start with the bridge…
The bridge in the middle distance is the Ponte Rotto or Ponte Emilio as it was properly named. This was an originally Roman bridge of seven arches built in the 2nd C BC. It was periodically damaged by floods and rebuilt especially in 1230 and 1557, until in 1575 and 1598 the whole eastern half was washed away, and it was given up as a lost cause. After that two main arches and a slightly smaller arch abutting the bank stood uselessly – known by the colloquial name ‘Ponte Rotto’ – until 1853 when the gap was respanned with an iron footbridge. That lasted only a few years until 1887, when the whole bridge was condemned and demolished all but one arch. The remaining arch survives, curiously marooned in mid-river, and a new bridge, the Ponte Palatine has been built immediately downstream.
Turner knew the bridge well, and had made close-up studies of it in 1819, and sketched it correctly as seen from the Aventine in 1828 so it is provoking that he transfigures it in the painting. We can see four spans, rather than three; the bridge appears to reach the far bank, whereas it stopped well short in mid-river, and the shape and detail of the arches is altered. This is doubly strange since not only did Turner know the form of the Ponte Rotto, so also would anyone with any pretence to knowing Rome. Oddly, Turner made this picture for a patron, who evidently called for a ‘copy’ rather than an idealisation, and might well have been expected to object to the discrepancy, or to suffer having it pointed out by those that saw it.
Given the investment that Turner had made in recording its correct form, it is unthinkable that he simply forgot; or didn’t care. Quite the reverse, the discrepancy must have been made wilfully and intentionally. It is perhaps all the more remarkable that no-one has ever noticed. Though surely that cannot have been his intent?!?
Click on any of the images below to open gallery of three details of treatment of the Ponte Rotto:
Quite apart from the number of arches, it is also plain that Turner ignored his own knowledge of the architectural form. The bridge in the painting has niches on each pier framed by pilasters and capped by triangular pediments. The actual bridge had (rather smaller) through-tunnels for floodwater to pass through, flanked by pilasters but without the triangular pediments. The bridge in the painting has large wide arches that reach up almost to the road-bed. The actual bridge was heavier with a deeper parapet. Nonetheless for a bridge two thousand years old when Turner drew it, it exhibits a remarkably open structure, and one to which Neo-classical bridge builders referred as a source of inspiration. Bridges with the apsidal niches and triangular pediments to their piers were by no means common, but Turner did know one of exactly this form.
Click on any image below to open full sized images and captions:
I’ll take a drive up to Lancaster and take some photographs of my own, but in the meantime here is a link to a good comparison (click on the link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page):
And another by Keith Sergeant at https://www.flickr.com/photos/chaotic_river/7084892223/
Turner had drawn Thomas Harrison’s 1787 Skerton Bridge over the river Lune at Lancaster in 1816, and had occasion to revisit that material when he included the bridge in his watercolour of Lancaster from the Lune Aqueduct, which was engraved for his series Picturesque View s in England and Wales and published in 1827. I will freely admit that this looks to be an outlandish connection but Harrison’s bridge still stands, and the bridge in Turner’s Rome from Mount Aventine much more resembles it than it does the Ponte Rotto. Turner might have given some thought again to Harrison when he died in 1829 but how a north country subject could be so far-fetched into synthesis with Turner’s imaginings of Rome will require exceedingly ingenious explanation..
And then there’s the Ospizio..
The Ospizio di San Michele a Ripa Grande is the large modern building along the river front to the left. It consists of five five-storey blocks of nine bays connected by four four-bay four-storey blocks. The southern four blocks were built between 1693 and 1714, and the northernmost block was added in the later eighteenth century. It was the largest charitable institution in Rome by the beginning of the nineteenth century, providing work for orphaned or abandoned children, the elderly and unmarried women. Its continuous frontage stretches for over 500 meters and survives intact, its mottled and faded terracotta stucco barely relieving its industrial grimness.
Turner’s sketch recognised its regularity. All Turner had to do was draw the leftmost bay, and he could produce the remaining 34 (8+4+9+4+9) repetitions from that. One might expect that he would have wanted to try and enliven its appearance in the painting. Instead he treats it as one single completely unvaried block. It seems that he chose to emphasise the inflexible regularity of the modern. In that he certainly succeeded for it troubled Turner’s first biographer, Walter Thornbury, sufficiently for him to remark that ‘so faithful, indeed, has the painter been in this beautiful picture, that he has, even at some peril to his success, introduced in the left-hand foreground a long monotonous row of modern houses’. The original architect had at least tried to introduce some variety by alternating four storey blocks with three. Turner clearly intends to emphasise the monotony and the scale. This is a vast uncompromising factory, monotonous and regimented to an extent unrivalled by anything else in the whole scene, including that dating from Imperial Rome. Heaven knows what lives must have been like for those fortunate enough to have enjoyed this Institution’s charity. Turner clearly meant us to give some thought to this most conspicuous contemporary feature in this view of modern Rome.
Not to mention the Castel Sant’Angelo..
We might scan the sketch in vain for any sign of the Castel Sant’Angelo. This famous landmark – a great brick drum built in the second century as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian – stands east of St Peter’s, where the great ceremonial avenue of the Via della Conciliazione meets the river Tiber. From Turner’s viewpoint on the terrace of Santi Alessio e Bonifacio it lies on the line of sight to the highest point of Monte Mario, slightly right of the observatory, but despite the fact that it was once the tallest building in Rome, it cannot be distinguished in the sketch. Only its upper parts are visible, at the foot of the tree-crested Monte Mario, just to the left of the dome of Santa Maria in Valicella. On the other hand it can be fairly readily discovered in the painting. If one works right from the dome of St Peter’s, it appears just beyond the great block of the Vatican. As a matter of fact, it is in the wrong place – to the left of the campanile of St Crisogono in Trastavere, rather than the right. It is quite accurately made out, but even so it takes some finding.
Click image to enlarge:
Panning across the picture we may note constant departures from the sketch and from reality, but the curious thing is that whilst some differences are complete invention, others wilful deviation from his own information and knowledge, some are improvements. The treatment of St Peter’s and the Vatican is rather better than the sketch. Turner, of course, knew the form of the basilica and the adjacent Vatican well, and had studies it from every angle in his 1819 sketches, so the way that the drum and dome sit on the great white marble block of the basilica and are flanked by the buildings of the Vatican is well given and Turner gives the general character and complexity of the buildings, if not quite their exact forms.
Nowhere else in the painting, however, is the detail superior to that of the sketch. This is particularly true of the cluster of Domes in the left middle distance that includes those of Sant Andrea della Valle ad San Carlo ai Catinari, and the Pantheon, all mere ciphers of themselves, and at least one of the domes – that to the left of San Carlo – altogether invented. This is especially striking in the case of Sant Andre and San Carlo where, as we have already noted apropos of the sketch, Turner took some trouble over the appearance of the domes.
Click image to enlarge:
Everywhere, in fact, as Turner proceeded across his painting, he generalised, schematised, and abstracted his specific information. Click image to enlarge:
The critic of Blackwood’s Magazine thought all this an affront to his proper aesthetic standards: ‘A most unpleasant mixture, wherein white gambouge, and raw sienna are, with childish execution, daubed together’. But the truth of Turner’s ‘daubing’ is, that it is anything but childish, in fact it is professorially contrary. The sketch demonstrates that he was fully possessed of information derived from considered sight. Yet not only did he chose not to follow his own information, he wilfully transmuted every detail.
So the big question is why? It appears that a major change occurred in Turner’s approach to topography between the date of the sketch, 1828 and the date of the painting, 1835-6. The sketch seems to be almost the apogee of a trend in his practice to understand and record appearance in a recognisably Cartesian frame. The painting systematically disavows all that, yet might still be said to represent Rome in an extraordinary vivid and convincing way. This clearly warrants further discussion, but for now I’ll post this as it stands. It might take a little while to work through the implications.
Watch this space…
REVISED MAY 2015 WITH PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN FOLLOWING SITE VISIT 10-14 APRIL 2015.
Sponsored by the Pilkington Anglo-Japanese Cultural Foundation