This weekend we’re off to the Eternal City of Rome. In a bid to beat the start of the tourist season next month, we’ll visit early, just as the weather is starting to warm up nicely for the Spring. In today’s itinerary, we’ll tour the best-known sites and sights on and around the central Palatine and Capitoline hills, then tomorrow we’ll explore a fascinating island on the River Tiber, and visit the Borghese Gardens to the north of the city centre, thanks to the paintings of many masters.
Rome has a special place in the history of landscape painting, as the birthplace and nursery of plein air oil painting. Its father was Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, whose oil sketches of the city and its surrounding countryside were groundbreaking, and precursors to Impressionism.
Several of his surviving oil sketches are brilliant studies in the effects of light, such as Rome: Houses and a Domed Church, painted on cardboard in about 1783. Astonishingly, Valenciennes didn’t intend others to see these paintings, but built them into a library that he used for finished paintings made in his studio.
To the south-east of the centre of Rome, by the Palatine Hill, is the Forum, and further to the east is the Colosseum, landmarks that have attracted many artists.
JMW 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.”
Salomon Corrodi’s undated watercolour View of Rome with the Colosseum and the Roman Forum is both beautifully lit and an accurate topographic view of the Colosseum in its more recent urban setting, in the late nineteenth century.
Landscape painting was imported into Italy by painters from northern Europe, most notably Paul Bril, whose View of the Roman Forum shows an extraordinary scene in 1600. Among the ruins of the former hub of the great empire were flocks of sheep and bars. Although the shepherds and their flocks have long since departed the city, it’s disarming to walk around the corner from breath-taking classical ruins straight into the glass doors of a McDonald’s.
During a much later visit to the city, Henri Harpignies painted this area in more detail in this undated view of The Roman Forum.
In the nineteenth century, many European landscape painters visited Rome to develop their oil sketching skills. Among them was the brilliant Austrian artist Tina Blau, whose View of the Arch of Titus Vespasian and Surrounding Ruins in the Roman Forum from 1879 is a fine finished work based on her oil sketches.
Following his marriage in 1837, the British landscape painter Samuel Palmer visited Rome in an extended working honeymoon. Sadly, he doesn’t appear to have developed this promising watercolour sketch of The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine from the Palatine, Rome (1837–39) into a more finished work.
The massive Colosseum has featured in many paintings over the years. Of those, I show just two.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Ave Caesar, Morituri Te Salutant or Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you, from 1859, is perhaps the most famous. A group of gladiators clustered in front of Caesar are just about to join the bodies of the last ones, who are still being dragged away by slaves. Concerns were raised by his depiction of the Vestal Virgins, carefully positioned between the gladiators and Caesar, watching and enjoying such a depraved spectacle.
Despite its popular appeal, there is more to Ave Caesar than its expansive view and the roar of the crowd. The viewer is, as in so many of Gérôme’s paintings, not only looking at the spectacle, but also at those looking at the spectacle, ultimately themselves. This painting was so successful that Goupil continued to sell reproductions of it for the following fifty years.
During his time honing his skills in Rome, the young Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg painted two views of the interior of the Colosseum in 1815-16. That above shows a quiet moment of prayer for the appalling succession of martyrs and others who were killed there over the years.
To the north-west of the Palatine Hill is the Capitoline, the central fortress of the city in classical times.
When Giovanni Battista Piranesi made prints of the classical remains of Rome, he included this Veduta with the Temple of Jove from about 1750-58. This shows the lesser of the two temples to Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. This lies between the larger and more important Temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the Forum to the south-east. It’s seen here in a state of ruin, with trees growing nearby, and livestock.
Francis Towne’s view of the famous Tarpeian Rock was painted in 1780, by which time most of the classical remains had been replaced by the more modern city.
North of the Capitoline is Trajan’s Column, one of the most familiar landmarks in modern Rome. It was erected in its own forum in 113 CE to commemorate the victory of the emperor Trajan in the Dacian Wars, fought on his behalf in the region of what is now Romania. Documenting the relief on this column was one of Piranesi’s last major projects in 1774.
His View of the Main Face of Trajan’s Column is just one of many meticulous etchings he made of the historical scenes winding their way up the column.
Tomorrow we start by walking south-west to the river to discover the site of the temple to Aesculapius, a god with close ties to the city.