Do you have memories that feel more real than your life today? British painter J. M. W. Turner did, and they are the subject of this painting.
The year is 1839. Turner, now in his 60s, has not set foot in Italy for 10 years. In his mind he journeys back to Rome, assuming a spot atop the Capitoline Hill, to create this panorama that leads our eye through a profusion of Renaissance and Baroque churches and palaces, in addition to ancient ruins.
They say “all roads lead to Rome,” and so, it seems, did the vectors of Turner’s memory, evoking in this painting a dreamlike grandeur of the Eternal City. The work is a composite of sketches, recollections, and the powerful influence of Turner’s heroes Claude Lorrain and Lord Byron. A close look reveals vivid details, such as the portrayal of figures in the shadowed foreground and the shimmering hazy light. A closer look discloses distortions, which remind us the image is a vision evoked by Turner’s memory, and that we are not actually in a real landscape. The disparity in ground level between the Arch of Severus on the left and the lofty Temple of Vespasian on the right is exaggerated for compositional effect; the Temple of Saturn is facing in the wrong direction.
Relieved of the need to be topographically correct, Turner produces sheer poetry in Technicolor. His sure technical skill and innovative brushwork provide an ethereal depiction, as the ruins and landscape dissolve into pure, dazzling color. We are mesmerized as the silvery light of the moon mixes with the golden hues of the sun.
And why Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino as a title? We see ancient Rome, once the pulsating hub of the Roman Empire, as the setting for the modern life of Turner’s day: a procession of contemporary monks gathers before the Church of Santi Luca e Martina, while peasant women with their children and goats lounge in the campo vaccino—“cow pasture”—of the foreground. The painting is a beautiful depiction of fallen greatness, full of enchantment, melancholy, rapture, and heartbreak.
Can you relate to Turner’s poetry of memory? Is there a place from your past that feels particularly vivid—so vivid you could paint it from memory? How do you see that place in your mind’s eye?
Question of the Week is a series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week. Turner’s Modern Rome was the object for the week of June 28, 2011.