A History of Rome in Paintings: 21 The Forum

J M W Turner (1775–1851), Modern Rome – Campo Vacino (1839), oil on canvas, 91.7 x 122.5 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills in the city of Rome was a roughly rectangular open space known as the Forum Romanum. Here was the heart of city life: a meeting place, somewhere to do business, a market, and political hub. Triumphs processed through it, elections took place there, as well as public orations and criminal trials.

ColdEel, Map of Ancient Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s marked in red on this map, with the Capitoline (yellow) to the north-west, and Palatine (yellow) to the south.

Lasha Tskhondia and Mark Miller, Sketch Up model of the Forum Romanum (2012), Wikimedia Commons.

This superb 3D model gives a good idea of its surroundings and contents at the height of the Empire. But the Forum Romanum wasn’t there in the early city, when this was a marsh outside the city’s walls. Later, it wasn’t the only forum by any means.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Leap of Marcus Curtius (c 1850-1855), oil on canvas, 53.3 x 55.2 cm, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. The Athenaeum.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Leap of Marcus Curtius from 1850-1855 depicts a short and not too demanding legend of a hero of classical Rome. Following an earthquake (now dated to 362 BCE), a great bottomless pit opened up in the middle of the Forum. Attempts to fill it were unsuccessful, so an augur was consulted, who responded that the gods demanded the most precious possession of the state.

Marcus Curtius was a young soldier who proclaimed that arms and the courage of Romans were the state’s most precious possessions. In a moment of great self-sacrifice, he then rode into the pit in his finest armour, astride his charger – the moment that Gérôme shows. As he and his horse fell into its abyss, the chasm closed over him, and the city was saved. The underlying patriotic moral is clear: self-sacrifice may be necessary for the State.

Legend also holds that the Forum played central roles in many of the momentous events which shaped the city’s history, including the rape and suicide of Lucretia which brought about the end of the early kings.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Lucretia (1500-01), tempera on panel, 83.5 x 180 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandro Botticelli’s comprehensive account of The Story of Lucretia, painted in 1500-01, is not one of his well-known works, but tells its story using multiplex narrative. At the left, Lucretia is raped at knifepoint by Sextus Tarquinius. She then commits suicide in shame, and anger erupts through Rome. Her body is carried from her house (right) and placed in the Forum. There, her husband and his friends swear to overthrow the king (centre), and this brings about the new constitution.

The Forum has also proved a popular motif for those painting the city’s ruins.

Paul Bril (c 1553/4–1626), View of the Roman Forum (1600), dimensions not known, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Bril’s View of the Roman Forum shows an extraordinary scene. Among the ruins of the former hub of the great empire are flocks of sheep and bars. When Claude Lorrain came to paint a similar scene more than thirty years later, in his Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum from about 1634 (below), little seems to have changed.

Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum (c 1634), oil on canvas, 79.7 x 118.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Visit the city of Rome today and you’ll see its classical remains cheek-by-jowl with fast food takeaways and modern apartments.

In landscape views, the Forum is often known as Campo Vaccino, and caught the eye of many a fine artist.

J M W Turner (1775–1851), Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839), oil on canvas, 91.7 x 122.5 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

J M W Turner painted Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino in 1839, a decade after his last visit to the city. For all its detail of Romans going about their everyday life against the backdrop of ancient ruins and contemporary buildings, it’s almost Impressionist in its treatment of light. This was first exhibited at the Royal Academy that year, where it was accompanied by a quotation from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818):
“The moon is up, and yet it is not night,
The sun as yet divides the day with her.”

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875), The Arch of Constantine and the Forum, Rome (1843), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 27 x 41.9 cm, Frick Collection, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Camille Corot painted this plein air view of The Arch of Constantine and the Forum, Rome in 1843, one of the many oil sketches he made in and around the city and its countryside from his first visit to Italy in 1825.

Henri Harpignies (1819–1916), The Roman Forum (date not known), oil on canvas, 33.3 x 41.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

During a much later visit to the city, Henri Harpignies painted it in more detail in this undated view of The Roman Forum.

Tina Blau (1845–1916), View of the Arch of Titus Vespasian and Surrounding Ruins in the Roman Forum (1879), oil on panel, 28 × 40.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Tina Blau’s larger and more finished View of the Arch of Titus Vespasian and Surrounding Ruins in the Roman Forum is another fine account of the ruins at the height of their neglect in the late nineteenth century.

The Forum also makes a surprise appearance in one of John William Waterhouse’s paintings from 1885, showing the martyrdom of Saint Eulalia.

Saint Eulalia exhibited 1885 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Saint Eulalia (1885), oil on canvas, 188.6 x 117.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/waterhouse-saint-eulalia-n01542

This young Christian girl was torn apart and burned by pagans for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods in Merida, Spain, yet Waterhouse has transported her to the Forum in Rome, and shown her body unmarked by her vicious murder. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy that year, and is now in the Tate Gallery in London. It is perhaps the bleakest ever depiction of the Forum.