27 March – 7 June 2009 | National Gallery of Scotland Complex | £8 (£6)
Consider Turner – his style, subjects, themes: conjured are images of majestic landscapes and buildings (antique and modern, this show emphasizes) and the overwhelmingly spectacular effects of light on these subjects and their colours. It is not surprising, then, that Turner, following the precepts of Claude (and others) who so influenced him, travelled and worked extensively in Italy, where all these Turner traits are present, abundant and best.
Turner and Italy is a masterful exhibition that examines the nature and significance this “love affair.” It assembles a large selection of exemplary paintings, watercolours, sketchbooks, engravings, as well as some books from our artist’s library (these last borrowed largely from private collectors); it provides insight into our traveller’s itineraries and conceptions, his Baedekering. The exhibition space is divided into four chapters: “Dreaming of Italy,” “Rome,” “Venice,” “Late Works.” It comes to the National Galleries in Edinburgh following its debut at Ferrara Arte. Later, Turner and Italy will move on to the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. The excellent catalogue that accompanies it in Edinburgh is by James Hamilton (click here to buy online).
There are two “Dreaming of Italy” rooms. On the walls of the first are a number of watercolours. They are of British, not Italian scenes (including a bird’s-eye view of Edinburgh Castle from Calton Hill). They are early compositions that precede Turner’s important 1819 tour of Italy. Yet they are absolutely reminiscent of the Old Master landscape painters active in Italy (most particularly, Claude), with his use of leaf-fringed foregrounds and central landscapes that seem to go on endlessly, and his keen attention to the effects of light on those landscapes. Large, with an entire wall dedicated to it, is the painting Thomson’s Æolian Harp (1809), which is especially Claudian. (It was inspired, however, by a work of the Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-48).) The landscape is imaginary and though the river is taken from the Thames, it is essentially a Classical, Italianate setting. The second room holds a number of watercolours (including two fine Vesuvius scenes, one an eruption of chaotic red, entitled Bay of Naples “Vesuvius Angry” c. 1817) designed to be converted into engravings for James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of Italy (1820). Most of these compositions were conceived before Turner’s 1819 visit. He was working not from sight or experience, but from drawings provided by the author. Although his ignorance is by no means obvious or upsetting to the accuracy of the artworks, one notices the improved flourish and originality of his Italian scenes post-1819. Complementing the “Dreaming of Italy” hangings are a selection of books that belonged to the artist, who was also a bibliophile. They reflect his interest in Italy and the Classics: there are translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by Alexander Pope, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, The Painting of the Ancients by Franciscus Junius, Antiquae Notitia by Basil Kennett and The Antiquities of Italy of John Henley (see Hamilton, 29).
Turner’s first visit to Italy was in 1802. This is a date the exhibition stresses (not 1819, which is the visit often cited as his first). This, however, was only a brief trip to the Continent as a result of the Peace of Amiens, a break in the British-French war which lasted little more than a year, but which encouraged many other Britishers to cross the channel, mostly to France. Indeed, Turner’s time was spent primarily there, where he studied works by Titian, Domenichino, Poussin, Correggio and more that were available to him at the Louvre. However, he did travel as far south as Aosta, situated in northern Italy, where he used the picturesque Roman ruins and Alpine setting as subjects.
In 1802 Turner had a glimpse of Italy – useful enough to kindle further his existing interests and provide some material. But it was seventeen years later, in 1819 (four years after the Napoleonic Wars finally ended), that he really experienced Italy. The trip began on July 31st. Some of the places he visited (a detailed account of the itinerary is in Hamilton’s catalogue) include: Turin, Milan, Verona, Padua, Venice, Bologna, Naples and, of course, Rome. Rome was in fact the primary purpose of this trip and it was here that he was most productive. Hamilton writes: “There seem to be two distinct purposes afoot in Turner’s production in Rome: the intensive information gathering at the Vatican Museum, St Peter’s and the Forum; and the sixty or seventy general views in the two Rome: ‘Colour Studies’ sketchbooks made in gouache and water colour in all conditions of light and atmosphere.”
From these studies comes Rome, from the Vatican. It is a large painting, and the composition is highly original. Raphael and his Fornarina occupy the bottom centre. The artist’s head resting on his right hand, he looks thoughtfully upwards, while she looks out, back to us. Despite their central positioning, however, it is easy to miss them altogether. There is so much else to see. It is a portrait of Rome. Framing the great vista are the ornate arches of a Vatican loggia, going left and right, us where the two points of the loggia converge. The building from which we view is painted with beautiful grotesques which Turner captures nicely. Outwards: to the left we see through the columned windows of a neighbouring palazzo; in the centre we see Piazza San Pietro and perpendicular to that, the Via della Conciliazione (pre-Mussolini!); beyond, just visible is the Castel Sant’Angelo; all around are the buildings of Rome, the hills that circle it and the clear blue sky that arches above the arches we look out from. What a painting! And how lucky to have it here, out of the Tate, in a context that celebrates the artist and the city and the country.
After 1819, Turner returned to Italy another five times before his death in 1851. From the 1840s, there are some excellent paintings and watercolours of Venice. These include a wonderfully subtle view of Santa Maria della Salute and a beautifully coloured view of his room in the Palazzo Giustiniani (the Hotel Europa) which looks out at San Marco. Then, there is the Approach to Venice (top) from the Mellon Collection at the National Gallery, Washington. This is without doubt one of the great highlights of the show (There are so many great works here that to use the word “highlight” feels somewhat absurd.), particularly special for the British audience as it is not from the Tate, where so many of the other artworks present are normally held. And it is certainly a great piece. It is typical of Turner’s later works, with that excellent texture and blurring of colours foreshadowing the Impressionists – yellow, pink, blue, and with a bit of green in the foreground. To the left is the moon which reflects against the water. It so perfectly captures the sentiments of all those who love and have loved Venice (Are there any that don’t?), it’s complete originality as a city. One feels like the Colonel in Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees: “Christ, what a lovely town” (perhaps it would be more graceful—and historically apt—to quote Byron).
Turner and Italy is a magnificent show. Its purpose is simple: to show through a large selection of artworks (and possessions), from all stages of Turner’s career, that artist’s relationship with Italy. There is no controversy or difficult question that it tries to answer. But it is important and a major exhibition nonetheless. The works shown are some of Turner’s best, but not only the best – the show must also be commended for its honesty. Shown with Approach to Venice, Modern Rome and other greats, are lesser works where Turner’s clumsiness (sometimes astonishing) at figure painting is shown unabashedly. The visitor comes away with a greater understanding of Turner’s career, his interests, his life and is pleased to see all these beautiful works together in such a context.