Rome is a city like no other. Once the centre of an ancient empire and later a city of great religious and cultural importance, Rome is a living history of Western civilisation. It is a city synonymous with power, grandeur, beauty and passion. For centuries Rome was the unrivalled art capital of the world.
It was near obligatory for any serious artist to visit the city and absorb the wealth of cultural riches ranging from classical antiquity to the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The array of magnificent buildings, evocative ruins and monuments has served as inspiration for countless artists. As a result, almost every corner of Rome has been captured on canvas.
The abundance of artistic depictions of Rome on Art UK affords the armchair traveller a thoroughly informative trip to the Eternal City, covering all the major sights and (thankfully free of queues), traffic and tourists.
Among the many important artists who settled permanently in Rome was the French painter Claude Lorrain (1604–1682). Born in the Duchy of Lorrain, Claude was captivated by Rome and its surrounding countryside and moved to the city around 1628. Although most of his influential landscapes are imaginary, some of his early paintings show accurate views of Rome, where he lived and worked from the 1620s.
A View in Rome, dated 1632, records a partial view of the city dominated by the sixteenth-century church of Trinità dei Monti, identifiable by its two prominent bell towers. In the central distance is the Quirinal Palace, built by Pope Gregory XIII. Evidently, Claude's depiction of Roman architecture, ranging from the modest to the monumental, served him well in his mastery of detail and perspective.
No other structure has come to symbolise the rise and fall of the Roman empire quite like the Colosseum, which perhaps remains the city's most famous site.
Constructed between AD 72 and 80, the Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world and its swift construction is testament to the astonishing engineering and organisational skills of the Romans – albeit aided by many thousands of slaves. For artists, the imposing structure of the Colosseum has proven to be an irresistible subject.
Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865), who was resident in Rome from between 1816 and 1830, depicted the Colosseum in a highly romanticised manner, bathing the ancient ruin in a Claudean light. It is a quiet meditation on the passing of time and offers little suggestion of the barbaric events that took place within its towering walls.
The act of taking a selfie in front of the Colosseum may seem like a recent invention, but Self Portrait with the Colosseum, Rome by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) suggests otherwise.
He travelled from his native Netherlands to Italy in 1532 and spent around five years in Rome. Here he proudly depicts himself alongside the grand amphitheatre, preserving for posterity his visit to Rome and his great admiration for the city's ancient structures.
Alongside the Colosseum, although often overshadowed, literally and metaphorically, is the Arch of Constantine.
Erected between AD 312 and 315 to celebrate the emperor Constantine's victory over his rival Maxentius in a bloody civil war, this is the largest and best-preserved triumphal arch in Rome. Its harmonious balance of geometry and proportion has made it an attractive subject for artists. In his large painting of the Arch of Constantine, the Flemish artist Jan Miel (1599–1663) shows it as a neglected but proudly defiant structure.
At the heart of ancient Rome was the Forum, a relatively small urban space that represented the political, juridical, religious and commercial centre of Roman life. Throughout its long history, the Forum witnessed political meetings, sacrifices, riots, gladiatorial fights and funerals.
Daily life it seems was rarely dull in the Roman Forum. After the fall of the Roman empire, the Forum was plundered for its building materials and its statues swiftly disappeared. It has since existed as an architectural graveyard, but one in which the visitor can easily gain a sense of the extraordinary power and pride that emanated from what was once the nerve centre of ancient Rome. The Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853) painted the Forum in its uncultivated state, showing agrarian life amidst the majestic ruins.
For those artists wanting a picturesque view of Rome, capturing both its beauty and history, there was none better than that of looking down the River Tiber towards Castel Sant'Angelo and with St Peter's Basilica in the distance. One painter who was astute in recognising the market potential of recording this view on canvas was Antonio Joli (c.1700–1777).
He was in Rome by 1718 and specialised in topographical views, which appealed to the wealthy Grand Tourists visiting Italy. Such was the proliferation of this quintessential Roman view in art that by the nineteenth century one visitor to Rome described his first sight of it as 'half recognition and half surprise'.
With so many extraordinary outdoor sights in Rome, it is easy to forget the equally jaw-dropping interiors that exist throughout the city. The interior of St Peter's Basilica, for example, is a dizzying combination of huge scale and ornate splendour. Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691–1765) was the most celebrated 'view' painter in eighteenth-century Rome. He painted around thirty versions of the interior of St Peter's and was seemingly undaunted by its vast space and wealth of decoration.
Blessed with a Mediterranean climate, Rome is ideal for open-air socialising. One of the city's most popular public spaces is the Piazza Navona. This popular square was built on the ruins of the Stadium of Domitian, which had held athletic games since AD 85. The grand centrepiece of the square is Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers, featuring an Egyptian obelisk and personifications of the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate.
In his lively painting of the Piazza Navona, Scottish artist David Roberts (1796–1864) captured the hustle and bustle of daily life against the square's wonderfully theatrical Baroque backdrop.
Not all artists in Rome opted for the obvious subjects, Sydney Lee (1866–1949), for example, painted a partial view of the Theatre of Marcellus. This is one of the less well-known of Rome's ancient sites. Built by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus, who dedicated it to his nephew Marcellus, this open-air theatre could hold around 20,000 people. By the Middle Ages the ground level archways were being used as shops before being removed by archaeological teams in the 1920s.
No visit to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Trevi Fountain, one of Rome's most famous sights. A feast for the eyes, this extravagant fountain was completed in 1762 and has been delighting visitors ever since.
It has been immortalised in the films Three Coins in the Fountain, Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita. Tradition says throwing a coin into the fountain will ensure a return to Rome. Apparently, around 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain daily.
The artist John Aldridge (1905–1983) took an unusual viewpoint for his painting of the fountain, placing the viewer almost within the monument's elaborate sculptural façade. Interestingly, he contrasts the fountain's Baroque showmanship with the more sedate surrounding buildings.
And so this whistle-stop tour of Rome comes to an end. The city, like many other major tourist destinations, has been quieter of late, and yet even in these uncertain days of international travel, all roads still lead to Rome.
Jonathan Hajdamach, Independent art historian