In the foreground Géricault places a single mature tree in full leaf, below which, hidden at the foot of the waterfall, lies Neptune's grotto, a dramatic natural plunge pool hollowed out by the thunderous power of the water plunging down the hill side. Noted for its beauty by Pliny and admired by awed visitors through the ages, it was and remains a popular tourist site.
Balancing these Stygian depths, at the top of the sheet, silhouetted against the skyline, Géricault profiles the verticals and horizontals of the classical structures that comprise Tivoli itself, including, in the centre, the campanile, the rectangular Temple of the Sybil, and the distinctive circular form of the Temple of Vesta that sits above the gorge.
Géricault's interest in visiting Italy had been developing for some time. It followed the disappointing reception of his Wounded Cuirassier at the Salon of 1814, his subsequent re-awakening of interest in a more classical tradition, and the emotional strain of a clandestine relationship with his maternal uncle's wife, Alexandrine Modest Caruel.
To immerse himself in the Antique he re-attached himself to his old teacher Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, pupil of Regnault and follower of David. He also returned to practising his art by drawing and painting in the Louvre. So inspired, it was inevitable that he would apply for the Prix de Rome. Although he didn't win it, by the time the result was announced, his heart and mind were set on embarking on what for all aspiring artists of the day had become a vital part of their education: a sojourn in the Eternal City. In addition the journey also afforded him the opportunity to dis-engage himself from his illicit amour.
Travelling to Italy in the autumn of 1816, he stopped first in Florence before arriving in Rome around the middle of November. There he lodged on Via S. Isidoro (present day Via degli Artisti), mid-way between the French Academy and Piazza Barberini. He was soon sketching, visiting the Sistine Chapel, and immersing himself in the art that he encountered at every turn: Baroque, Renaissance and the Antique.
But as the present work attests, as well as artists visiting Rome to make copies after earlier paintings and sculptures, they also sought out the beauty of the Roman campagna. Fresh from Paris and his time copying in the Louvre, Géricault's interpretation of Tivoli is strongly reminiscent of the classicising compositions of such artists as Gaspar Dughet, Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorraine, the latter who painted at least thirty compositions inspired by the dramatic setting and classical architecture of the town (fig. 1). But Lorenz Eitner also cites another more contemporary influence on Géricault's landscape compositions, namely Claude-Joseph Vernet's Italian landscapes. He points out: 'As the friend of Horace, [who lived on the same street as him in Montmartre], and former pupil of Carle Vernet, Gericault had every reason to be thoroughly acquainted with Joseph Vernet's Italian landscapes.' (L. Eitner, op. cit., 1983, p. 144), amongst which Vernet painted at least forty different views of Tivoli (fig. 2).
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