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drawing / album

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    The Baths of Caracalla, formerly part of an album; ruins covered in thick vegetation, massive broken arch in right foreground. 1781 Pen and black ink with brown wash and watercolour

  • Producer name

  • School/style

  • Date

    • 1781
  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 322 millimetres
    • Width: 477 millimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Content

        Inscribed and dated: "No 33 Francis Towne delt 1781"
        T. Wilcox, Francis Towne, London 1997
        Inscribed on the verso of the artist's mount (watermarked 1811), "Morning light from the left hand \ Rome \ No 33 \ The Baths of Caracalla \ Janry 1781 drawn on \ the Spot by \ Francis Towne"
  • Curator's comments

    From album NN,01.1-25
    See Nn,1.1 for information about the Towne albums as a whole.
    Watermark on album sheet: J. Whatman 1811

    T. Wilcox, Francis Towne, London 1997
    Aside from the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla formed the the most extensive complex of ruined buildings in Rome. They originally covered an area nearly three times that of the Forum, but serious exploration of the remains only began in 1779, when Pius VI granted permissions to the engraver Giovanni Volpato, the painter Gavin Hamilton and others to conduct excavations. Even then the crumbling masonry of the Baths was to remain largely overgrown until well into the next century. The young Robert Adam went there to sketch accompanied by Clérisseau and Piranesi in 1755 (Fleming 1962, p. 165); this was the same year that George Keate, in his poem 'Ancient and Modern Rome', described the remains of the Empire as
    "mould'ring Fragments, ivy-crested Tow'rs
    And Arches, tott'ring to their Fall"
    terms which applied pre-eminently to the Baths of Caracalla. In 1819, in his Preface to 'Prometheus Unbound', Shelley claimed to have written the poem chiefly among the Baths' "mountainous ruins ... among the flowery glades and thickets of odoriferous blossoming trees, which are extended in ever winding labyrinths upon its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the air" (Shelley 1973, p. 90).
    Towne had largely completed his series of drawings of the Colosseum by Christmas 1780. In the New Year he turned to a fresh challenge, and in January and February worked either at the Baths of Caracalla or among the ruins of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, beside the Forum. Even half-submerged in vegetation the vaulted arcading of the palace still evoked some suggestion of its original domestic function, which Towne drew in intricate detail. At the Baths he sought above all to render their immense bulk and did so in images which were among his most daring. 'No 32', in 'afternoon light', confronts the viewer with a vast wall, almost entirely in shadow, stretching across the entire sheet. The experience is completely disorientating, an effect tacitly acknowleged in the light-filled opening to the right, where a small figure provides a route through into the sunny ground beyond. In 'No 33', in 'morning light', the viewer is positioned not below but above the ruin; the viewpoint is, if anything, more uncomfortable, as the sea of decay seems to spread in waves to the horizon.
    The colouring of these two works is exceptional, particularly in the intensity of the greens. The overall effect is heavy and dull, rather than vibrant; it accords with Towne's almost grotesque presentation of the subject, seen as bombastic or forbidding rather than magnificent. Of a total of four drawings of the Baths now known Towne included only one in the 1805 exhibition (the others are numbered '35', BM Nm.09, repr. in col. Bury 1962, pl. xxvi; and '36', a much slighter monochrome image, one of few Roman subjects omitted from the donation and now in Leeds). No. 33 is now on a mount watermarked 1811, and was presumably not shown in 1805, though on what grounds can only be guessed at. It was not, presumably, on account of the rather unconventional, loosely structured compositions, as Towne showed no fewer than seven views of the Palatine with not dissimilar characteristics. Did the unusual colouring (which there is no reason to assume was applied much after than the drawing was made) later strike him as out of place, a tint too far in his quest for a vivid density of colour?

    The following label was written by Richard Stephens for the Towne exhibition in 2016:
    This and the previous exhibit (Nn,1.6) depict adjacent parts of the Baths of the Caracalla and were probably conceived as two parts of a panoramic view, even though they were eventually mounted separately. The card on which this watercolour was mounted is watermarked with the date 1811, and Towne's handwriting on its back betrays his old age. Perhaps by this point joining the two sheets was too challenging for Towne to attempt. In any case it shows how Towne's views of Rome continued to take shape, even three decades after his visit.

    For other views of the Baths of Caracalla by Francis Towne, see Nn,1.6, Nn,1.9 and Nn,2.29.


  • Bibliography

    • Binyon 1898-1907 2(7) bibliographic details
    • Bury 1962 2(7) bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display (British Imp PIIIb)

  • Exhibition history

    1981 BM P&D, 'Francis Towne and John 'Warwick Smith', no cat. 1997 June-Sep London, Tate Gallery, Francis Towne 1997/8 Oct-Jan Leeds CAG, Francis Towne
    2014 Apr-Jun, Rome, Fondazione Roma Arte-Musei, Hogarth, Reynolds, Turner: British Painting and the Rise of Modernity
    2016, Jan-Aug, BM, 'Light, Time, Legacy: Francis Towne's watercolours of Rome' (no catalogue)

  • Associated places

  • Acquisition name

  • 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

  • Department

    Prints & Drawings

  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • 1972,U.733
The Baths of Caracalla, formerly part of an album; ruins covered in thick vegetation, massive broken arch in r foreground. 1781 Pen and black ink with brown wash and watercolour


The Baths of Caracalla, formerly part of an album; ruins covered in thick vegetation, massive broken arch in r foreground. 1781 Pen and black ink with brown wash and watercolour

Image description



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