- Museum number
The Villa Borghese from a hollow road near the Arco Oscuro, formerly part of an album; view down road flanked by solid rock and trees, figures and valley in distance, with villa seen through clearing. 1780
Pen and black ink and watercolour
- Production date
Height: 327 millimetres
Width: 303 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- From album NN.02.1-32
See Nn,1.1 for information about the Towne albums as a whole.
T. Wilcox, Francis Towne, London 1997
The gardens of the Villa Borghese, situated just outside the city walls, were the most extensive and varied of all the Roman palaces. They incorporated, in the words of Edward Wright, "such an agreeable variety of walks and vistas, woods of evergreen of various sorts, fountains and statues in vast abundance ... it is indeed a perfect country, cut into various scenes of pleasures" (Wright 1764, p. 341). From all these options Towne, viewing the grounds from a distance, chose to depict the Villa as if set in rolling parkland, in an echo of his views of Devon houses.
The greenery which would traditionally have been only the frame for the more prestigious architectural subject has become the prime focus of Towne's attention: to the left overlapping washes of translucent colour conjure up a tree which fills nearly a quarter of the sheet, while beneath, a mass of straggling shrubbery needs the aid of thick gum to convey the depths of its shadows. On the opposite side of the path, in brilliant sunshine, one tree is rendered in tones of yellow and orange, while the fronds of another are lightly brushed in with hardly a hint of underdrawing. The work is a virtuoso display of Towne's appreciation of different types of vegetation, as they are affected by clear sunlight, even on a winter's day. The date of 1 December, which Towne later deleted, places this watercolour as the last of a small group, all made in the same vicinity, on 25, 28 and 29 November (BM Nn2.21, 20 and 23; the second, 'Near the Arco Oscuro', is reproduced in Stainton 1985, no. 33, pl. 19).
Tobias Smollett, in his acerbic 'Travels through France and Italy' (1766), called this "a very contemptible garden, compared to that of Stowe2 (quoted in Keaveney 1988, p. 220). That most famous of English gardens provided Smollett a familiar example with which to denigrate the Italian park; Stowe's unifying theme of the celebration of national virtues was, indeed, a part of the climate which enabled his prejudice to flourish. Towne, even if he did not in every other respect identify with the ethos of the ruling class, does appear to have shared his countrymen's views on Continental gardens.
The following label was written by Richard Stephens for the Towne exhibition in 2016:
Towne's inscriptions suggest how he used the watercolours as talking points with friends and clients, in ways that would have underlined his status as a man of accomplishments who had seen the world. In this example, Towne borrowed his facts from The Habitable World Described, a travel compendium published in 1794 by the Rev John Trusler (1735-1820), writing on the mount that the location 'lies a quarter of a mile from the Porta Pinciana & is entirely inclosed within a wall five Italian Miles in Circuit.'
Towne also kept a detailed diary of his time abroad, now lost. As his friend James White wrote from Exeter, 'All your Friends here are quite delighted with the accounts you give of your Expedition which I know is the principal Pleasure they can receive - till your Return when your Drawings and Descriptions will go hand in hand together and mutually illustrate & explain one another. I am fully persuaded you have done yourself great service by being so particular in your journal.'
In the mid-1780s Towne made a copy of this watercolour on commission.
For other views near the Arco Oscuro by Towne see Nn,1.11, Nn,2.21, Nn,1.14, Nn,2.20 and Nn,2.23.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1997, June-Sept London, Tate Gallery, Francis Towne
1997/8, Oct-June Leeds CAG, Francis Towne
2016, Jan-Aug, BM, 'Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne's watercolours of Rome' (no catalogue)
- Laid down in original wash-lined mount.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- T. Wilcox, Francis Towne, London 1997
Donated, in accordance with the artist's wishes, by his executor, James White, and "with the concurrence of J. H. Merivale" 1816
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: 1972,U.721