Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 this magnificent landscape is one of the few remaining great masterpieces by Turner left in private hands. Based on detailed sketches the artist made during his second trip to Rome in 1828, the view depicts the city as seen from the Aventine Hill, looking north across the ancient city towards the distant Vatican. Rome was the cradle of western civilisation and the centre of the European art world from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. It was the Holy Grail for artists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and as both a subject and source of inspiration the city captivated Turner for over twenty years.
The painting was commissioned by one of Turner's most important patrons, the artist's close friend and executor Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro of Novar (1797-1864). An amateur artist himself, who travelled on sketching tours with Turner, Munro was one of the greatest collectors of his generation, and had specifically requested that Turner paint him ‘a copy of the city’, a picture of ‘modern Rome’ to add to his outstanding collection of Old Masters and contemporary British paintings. Following Munro’s death the painting was acquired at the sale of his collection in 1878 by Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), later Prime Minister of Great Britain, who had just married Hannah de Rothschilde. Hannah was the daughter of the great collector and banking magnate Baron Mayer de Rothschild, and the greatest heiress of her day. The picture has remained in the Rosebery collection ever since and as a result not only has impeccable provenance but is in exceptional, untouched original condition. It is a rare joy to see a painting that is nearly 200 years old in such startlingly well preserved state, with every flick of the artist’s brush, every scrape of his pallet knife upon the surface preserved in incredible detail.
This incredibly beautiful painting is possibly Turner’s most serene and beguiling vision of Rome. With infinite subtlety he captures the first rays of morning light as they dispel the rising mist from the Tiber and bath the eternal city in a soft golden glow. It is an enduring, timeless image, as if something from a dream, and yet every detail of the city is painstakingly and accurately portrayed. In the foreground the view is dominated on the left by the busy waterfront of Trastevere, the Ripa Grande, animated by the bustling comings and goings of the dock yards in the early morning and backed by the imposing façade of the Ospizio di San Michele, gleaming white in the soft sunlight. In Turner’s day this whole area was an important and busy port. Known as the Porto di Ripa it was one of the main arteries of the city, servicing the shipping and goods which came up from the port of Ostia on the Mediterranean. Behind the Ospizio di San Michele rises the Janiculum Hill and the colossal mass of St Peter’s Basilica silhouetted against the skyline, a monumental symbol of Christianity casting its shadow across the ruins of pagan antiquity. As the eye sweeps across the picture to the right the view takes in Raphael’s Villa Madama, with its famous decorative cycle by Giulio Romano, twinkling in the distance atop Monte Mario. Closer to the viewer the domes of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo can clearly be seen standing proud of the densely packed city, whilst the centre of the composition is dominated by the Ponte Emilio jutting out into the river, its broken span blending and disappearing into the mist and the reflections on the water. To the right of the bridge the Capitoline Hill and the Campidoglio pierce the horizon, whilst the view sweeps round with the curve of the river to incorporate the ruins of the ancient Forum Romanum, the Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus. On the far right, faintly outlined in the mist, can just be seen the arches of the Colosseum peeking through the dark foliage in the near foreground. Through all of this sweeps the ethereal Tiber itself, the reflected dawn light mingling with the mist to blur the boundaries between the city and the river itself and infuse the whole in a hazy golden glow. It is as if the city itself is waking from slumber, coming to life and emerging into a new dawn free from the oppression and tyranny under which it had laboured during the despotism of Napoleonic rule.