One of the great things about the Francis Towne exhibition is thinking about why and where he was drawing. Towne arrived in Rome in the autumn of 1780 and shortly afterwards began to explore the city and the surrounding Campagna. Early drawings depict the Colosseum and the barren landscape to the north of the city along the Tiber. The latter views are fascinating in trying to understand the motivation for recording certain views at this date.
Towne’s contemporary and drawing companion, Thomas Jones, famously remarked, whilst walking in the Castelli Romani: ‘Every scene seemed anticipated in some dream – It appeared Magick Land.’ The idea of the Italian landscape having cultural resonance for a British audience and appearing almost familiar is one he restates more explicitly later in the same passage: ‘in fact I had copied so many Studies of that great Man, & my Old Master, Richard Wilson, which he had made here as in Other parts of Italy, that I insensibly became familiarized with Italian Scenes, and enamoured of Italian forms.’
Towne must have had a similar sense of the familiarity of Italian views, particularly the great vistas of lakes Nemi and Albani which Jones was describing and which were particularly popular amongst a British audience. Less obvious are the early views Towne made on the Tiber. One answer may lie in the works of Claude. Towne’s The Banks of the Tiber, Looking Upstream shows a fairly non-descript, barren landscape, with only a tower in the middle distance. Although Towne, labelling his drawings after his return from Italy, was unsure of the name of the structure, it can be identified as the Torre Lazzaroni, erected in the eleventh century, in part from spoglie from nearby Roman tombs. The Torre is located close to the Ponte Molle, the bridge over which the via Flaminia runs into Rome. The Torre Lazzaroni was drawn by Claude in an atmospheric sepia wash drawing now in the British Museum.
It may also have been the influence of Claude which explains Towne’s choice of subject matter in his larger sheet The Banks of the Tiber near Ponte Molle. Here Towne focused on the small chapel of S. Giuliano perched on a rocky outcrop with a castellated farmhouse beyond at the bend in the Tiber; visible at the foot of the structure is the curved mass of the Acqua Acestosa fountain, a mineral spring which became popular with Romans in the seventeenth century. The Acqua Acetosa had been a favourite subject of Richard Wilson, but Towne’s view is very close to one by Claude of the same stretch of the Tiber, executed in sepia ink. Claude’s viewpoint is slightly lower, below the mass of S. Giuliano, but the composition is identical. Claude’s drawing, now in the British Museum, was owned in the eighteenth century by Richard Payne Knight and may well have been known to Towne.
Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome
The British Museum
21 January–14 August 2016