This magnificent scene of the Roman campagna is impressive not only for its scale and dramatic composition, but also for the consistently high quality one finds throughout the painting. Busiri Vici rightly stated that the main protagonists of Van Bloemen’s landscapes are the trees, the natural elements which he so vividly portrays, rather than any of the figures that populate them, and this is one of the most significant examples in his œuvre. The artist has created a convincing sense of depth by drawing us into the landscape through a river placed in the centre foreground. The men and women resting on its banks act as repoussoir figures and our eye is immediately led to the hills beyond where the real focus of the painting is: a bolt of lightning has just struck a hill-top and a fire is just breaking out beside a farmhouse that the bolt narrowly missed.
In this, as in other arcadian landscapes painted by the artist, Van Bloemen shows his skill in rendering different atmospheric effects. We sense the storm moving swiftly over the landscape, the storm-clouds being driven by a wind which bends trees under its force. The bolt of lightning in the centre of the painting is a motif which recurs in other paintings by Van Bloemen, but never on the same scale or with the same dramatic emphasis as it does here: compare, for example, his Stormy landscapes in the Galleria Doria Pamphilij, Rome, and Galleria Sabauda, Turin (Busiri Vici, see Literature, nos. 22 and 340, both reproduced); or the small copper tondo in a Roman private collection (ibid., no. 105, reproduced). The Temple of Vesta (or Temple of the Sibyl) was a favourite motif not just for Van Bloemen but for the many vedutisti who portrayed the Roman campagna and Tivoli in particular. Its partially ruined structure, still visible today, dominates a rocky hill-top and the waterfall pours out from under it; a detail used again by Van Bloemen on numerous occasions (compare a painting of upright format in which this becomes the main subject of the painting; ibid., no. 135, reproduced). The figures, which are of exceedingly high quality, are probably by Van Bloemen himself rather than by any of the painters with whom he frequently collaborated.
This work is likely to be identifiable with a painting recorded in a letter, dated 14 January 1736, sent by Van Bloemen to the architect Filippo Juvarra in Madrid. The artist talks of four paintings he is working on for Elisabetta Farnese (1692-1766), second wife of Philip V and Queen of Spain, all of which measure seven by ten palmi romani (approx. 156 by 223 cm.); a pair of vertical format (showing Villa Medici with antique vases) and another horizontal pair: “…gli altri due sono per traverso l’uno rappresenta gli Orti Farnesiani, con tutta la veduta di Campovaccino di Roma, l’altro rappresenta la gran cascata di Tivoli” (cited in Busiri Vici, op. cit., pp. 228-9, doc. no. 3). The former is to be identified with the painting belonging to the Gruppo Ferruzzi and sold, Milan, Sotheby's, 8 June 1994, lot 268, which is of very similar dimensions to the present work (172 by 247 cm.; ibid., no. 211, figs. 10, 33, 34 and 190). Van Bloemen goes on to say that he wishes them to be hung in the Palacio Real and that he would like to be paid a sum of 300 scudi Romani for each pair, given the effort he has put into them (“quadri che mi costano una lunga fatica”). Pascoli, in his biography on the artist written shortly afterwards, mentions only two paintings for the Queen of Spain and records only the Farnese-related subjects, but Van Bloemen’s letter should be taken as firm evidence: the fact that paintings on such a large scale, particularly of Tivoli, are rare in his work, makes an identification with the Farnese painting more than likely.
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