Purchased in Italy, together with the View of Venice, by Friederik Sigmond van
Through inheritance to Anne Visser, née van Bylandt
(1866-1929), whose coat of arms was formerly visible on the back of its
London, Christie’s, 16 December 1998, no. 69.
With Richard Green, London;
Italy, Private collection.
London, Robilant+Voena, Vanvitelli - Gaspar Van Wittel, 18 November 2008 – 19 December 2008,
n. 4; Amersfoort, Museum Flehite, Tijdloos
kijken naar oude meesters, 24 February – 3 June 2013
This View of the Colosseum, slightly smaller in size that that of the version in Holkham Hall, identical in format and dated 1716, was presumably painted by Gaspar van Wittel in 1707, because its pendant, the View of Venice, is dated to that year.
The Dutch painter, whom I would like to define as the real inventor of this view of the Colosseum, produced numerous different versions of it; we know of eight of them, all of them either dated or datable to the early decades of the eighteenth century. It was just in the eighteenth century, especially in the second half, that this monument, the Colosseum, the most famous of ancient Rome, came to assume a high symbolic value. Its painted image became, especially in the eyes of English cultivators of the Grand Tour, one of the most emblematic sites of the city. So aristocratic British visitors to Italy had themselves portrayed by Pompeo Batoni with the Colosseum behind them, as in the case of Colonel the Hon. William Gordon (National Trust for Scotland, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire), whom the artist portrayed life-size, posed in front of the Roman amphitheatre.
The growing number of these topographical views of the Colosseum, in the early eighteenth century, reflected a precise interest. So Gaspar van Wittel’s ‘invention’ was not born from nothing: it was a precise response to the growing demand of his clientele. When in 1716 Thomas Coke, later Earl of Leicester, purchased his view of the Colosseum directly from Gaspar van Wittel, the subject already existed; the artist had already “invented” it; and the English milord chose it to take back home with him his image of Rome which would find a place of honour in one of the drawing-rooms of his sumptuous country house in Norfolk (Holkham Hall). It was thanks to Van Wittel that this real image of the monument was born in the early years of the eighteenth century. Only a few decades later Giovanni Paolo Pannini would disseminate it in exemplary manner, to such an extent that, around the mid-1730s, he would begin to use it more promiscuously, combining it with others and thus depriving it of its uniqueness: painted cheek by jowl with other buildings of ancient Rome, without any respect for topographical truth, the Colosseum would thus come to form part of a veritable pot-pourri, a miscellaneous jumble of monuments, a wholly abstract souvenir de Rome. But by the time Pannini decontextualized the Colosseum, Van Wittel had reached the end of his artistic career and perhaps had even stopped painting altogether. Pannini’s first experiments of kaleidoscoping the buildings of ancient Rome, in fact date to 1735, the year before Van Wittel’s death; they were created perhaps for the use of those visitors who had substituted the desire for a vague and miscellaneous souvenir of the city for a precise record of topographical truth.
The View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine is taken from the garden of the Friars of Santa Francesca Romana, where the imposing ruins of the Temple of Venus and Rome stood. More precisely the point of view corresponds with the end of what is now the Via dei Fori Imperiali. To the left of the Colosseum we see un bello stradone, chiamato di S. Giovanni, because, as Mariano Vasi explained in his guidebook in 1791, direttamente conduce alla Basilica di questo Santo (i.e. the Lateran). In the upper left of the scene we see the ruins identified in Giovanni Battista Falda’s plan of Rome of 1676 as the Vestigia di Tito popularly known as ‘le 7 Sale’. The road, after curving round the Colosseum, leads into the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, which we glimpse in the far left of Van Wittel’s view. The centre of the piazza can be clearly distinguished by the Egyptian obelisk in red granite, while to its right appear the two medieval campanili of the basilica flanked by the long façade of the sixteenth-century Lateran Palace built by Domenico Fontana for Sixtus V. To the right of the painting, between the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, we can see, behind the Paganica vineyard, the ruins of the Curia Ostilia with the gardens of the Noviziato dei Missionari, and the campanile and church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Further to the right, at a tangent to the Arch, are the chapels of San Gregorio al Celio. Conspicuous in front of the Arch of Constantine is the Meta Sudans, the characteristic cone-shaped fountain commissioned by the emperor Titus, rebuilt by Domitian and demolished in 1936. Beyond the Arch, flanking the Via di San Gregorio, are some arcades of the Neronian aqueduct to the right. In the foreground, sitting amid a scene of grazing cows and sheep, and fragments of ruin scattered here and there, appears an artist, dressed in red, in the act of drawing the famous monument, while another has just arrived on the scene; he is standing, with his sketchbook under his arm, flanked by a dog. Among the many drawings by Gaspar van Wittel in the collection of the Reggia at Caserta is one portraying two artists, one sitting and the other standing with his folio of drawings under his arm. The drawing is not exactly preparatory for this painting, but reveals van Wittel’s careful attention to figures in general and to this motif in particular, one that the artist was particularly fond of and often introduced into his works. Besides the motif of the artist drawing en plein air was not only autobiographical but reflected what Van Wittel constantly found before his eyes.
The tiny figures of gentlemen promenading can be seen in the second arcade of the Colosseum: a proof of bravura on the part of the painter who had by now achieved perfect skill in the painting of the human figures that enliven his topographical scenes.
Laura Laureati, 2008