by Roderick Conway Morris

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Turner and the Italian Experience

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 27 December 2008
Schorr Collection
The Devil's Bridge, St Gotthard Pass, by Turner, 1803



J.M.W. Turner did not see Italy until 1802, the same year he was elected to the Royal Academy at 27, then the youngest member ever.

But the idea of Italy had already become an essential element in the precociously accomplished young painter and draftsman's productions while he was still in his teens. And his later visits to the peninsula had a radical effect on the development of his mature work.

The lifelong impact of the Italian experience on the English artist is the subject of 'Turner and Italy,' a splendid exhibition of nearly 90 paintings and drawings, expertly curated by James Hamilton. The show continues at Palazzo dei Diamanti here until Feb. 22, then travels on to the National Gallery in Edinburgh and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

Turner began to imbibe Italy in his youth through English buildings influenced by Italian architecture (he grew up near Inigo Jones's Palladian Covent Garden Piazza, and his first apprenticeships were with an architect and an architectural draftsman), Old Master Italian paintings, the landscapes of Claude Lorraine and Italian views by British painters, notably Richard Wilson and John Robert Cozens. All three of these artists are represented by fine pieces in the exhibition.

Although of lowly stock - his father was a barber - the artist found patrons who would have been willing to commission him to travel to Italy to execute works for them and extend his artistic education, but the Continent was closed to him by the Napoleonic Wars.

A brief pause in this long conflict, after the Peace of Amiens in 1802, precipitated a rush of English visitors to France. Artists in particular seized the chance to visit Paris and the Louvre, then stuffed with looted masterpieces from all over Europe, advertised over the museum's cornice as 'Les fruits de nos victoires' (The Fruits of Our Victories).

With his patrons' assistance Turner, too, traveled to Paris and surveyed the Louvre but was anxious to press on to Italy while he could. On the way, he discovered the Alps, the most enduring added bonus of his determination to see Italy itself. The profound impression that these mountains had on him is illustrated here by drawings and watercolors, including the spectacular 'St Gotthard Pass from the Middle of the Devil's Bridge.' The painting depicts a narrow mule path vertiginously snaking its way beneath overhanging rocks on the sheer cliff-face, streaked with frozen cascades above and the dizzying chasm below, half-concealed by the icy mists billowing through it.

On this trip, the artist made it only as far as Aosta on the southern side of the Alps, where he saw his first Roman remains on Italian soil.

Brief though this taste of Italy was, it stimulated Turner to produce further colorful scenes of cities there he was yet to visit himself, among them Rome and Naples. Meanwhile, the renewed outbreak of hostilities impeded his return to the Continent for many years.

That long-term Italian resident and Turner hero, Claude Lorraine, was a primary influence on the English artist's undertaking of his 'Liber Studiorum.' Claude had compiled a catalogue of drawings of his own paintings, the 'Liber Veritatis.' From 1806 onward, Turner began a similar project of etchings of his own paintings, intended for publication. Italian landscapes, often with architectural features, figured prominently in this collection.

But Turner went further, transforming, for example, rural Thames-side views to the west of London into Claudian Italianate pastoral scenes. A fascinating case on show here is 'Isleworth,' a print from the 'Liber Studiorum' of the (still picturesque) riverside village where Turner lived after his return to England. The medieval church tower, cottages and a mill appear mistily in the background, but in sharp focus in the foreground Turner has conjured up on the tree-lined riverbank a circular Roman temple and imbued the whole scene with a distinctly Claudian atmosphere.

'Isleworth' is dated 'January 1, 1819.' In the summer of that year, Turner set out for Italy again to see the real thing.

He had prepared for years for this opportunity: immersed himself in classical literature, the Roman poets and historians, and Alexander Pope's translations of the 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey'; studied the available travel literature, both poetic and prosaic; and made a personal notebook (on show here) of thumbnail sketches, a dozen to a page, of the places he intended to seek out and record for himself.

The artist traversed the Alps again and took a zigzag route down the peninsula, making his first visit to Venice, passing through Bologna, Rimini and Ancona, crossing the Apennines, and going through Umbria on the way to Rome and Naples.

Vesuvius perversely erupted shortly after he returned to Rome. But he made an absolutely exquisite unfinished watercolor sketch (lent by the Tate) of the volcano seen from across the bay, emitting (as he acutely observed) twin plumes of decorative smoke, drifting lazily inland against a tranquil but subtly darkening sky.

Exposure to the full force of Mediterranean light and the strong, contrasting colors of Italy's land- and seascapes had dramatic consequences for Turner's palette, as he adopted a whole new range of vibrant yellows, blues and reds. Nor were these only applied to his Italian paintings - which he worked up from his hundreds of often minutely detailed drawings and sketches into oils and watercolors in his studio when he returned home - but also to new works depicting his native land.

Over the next decade, as vividly demonstrated in the exhibition, sooty Edinburgh became a Caledonian Roman forum basking in the southern sun; Minehead in Somerset, a northern Bay of Naples; Hythe in Kent was transposed to the Gulf of Salerno; and Virginia Water, a small lake in Surrey to the west of London, took on the glassy, miasmic air of the Venetian lagoon in midsummer.

This proved too much for some British critics, who complained that Turner's painting was suffering from some kind of 'yellow fever.' In 1828, the artist returned to Rome for an extended sojourn to try out the life of the resident artist as opposed to that of the itinerant visitor. He held an exhibition of his work at a palazzo on the Quirinal Hill. Instead of wood he used ship's ropes painted with yellow ochre to frame the pictures. The antiquary David Laing laconically recorded that 'the people here cannot understand his style at all.'

Nonetheless, at least two of his large oils that resulted from this last Roman stay - 'Rome Seen from the Aventine Hill' and 'Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino' (both here from Edinburgh) - must now surely be considered among the greatest of his Italian pictures.

Turner spent only about a month in all in Venice over three stays, in 1819, 1833 and 1840. James Hamilton rightly points out in the catalogue that in terms of production the artist's special passion for the place was 'an idiosyncrasy of his old age,' rather than something that occupied him, as did Italy in general, throughout his career. At the same time, Venice was a significant factor in the adventurous experimentation of the artist's last years, as is witnessed by the striking selection of Venetian and other late works with Italian settings, which gave rise to such English masterpieces as 'Rain, Steam and Speed,' now at the Tate Gallery.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023