Ancient Rome; Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Exhibited 1839. Oil on canvas, 914 x 1219 mm. Courtesy of Tate Britain (Accession no. NO0523. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.) Click on image to enlarge it.

Commentary from Tate Britain Online

Exhibited in 1839 with the following lines:

‘The clear stream,
Aye,—the yellow Tiber glimmers to her beam,
Even while the sun is setting’.

Germanicus Julius Caesar (15B.C.-A.D. 19) was the nephew and adopted son of the Emperor Tiberius and, by his wife Agrippina, the father of the future Emperor Caligula and Nero's mother, the younger Agrippina. He died in Antioch, the cause being rumoured to be poison or the magical arts. Germanicus' widow brought his ashes home in an urn, but in fact landed at Brundisium (Brindisi), not Rome as given in Turner's probable source, Oliver Goldsmith's Roman History, 1786 (ii, p. 88). In his verses Turner is presumably alluding to this incident as a stage in the decline of Rome. The picture is a pair to Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino (No. 379); c.f. of the previous year (Nos. 375 and 374).

As the full title indicates, the picture is also an exercise in archaeological restoration in the manner of C.R. Cockerell and J.M. Gandy, as in the cases of Nos. 133, 337 [N00512] and 375. For possible sources in F. Bianchini's Del Palazzo de'Cesari, 1738, Constantino (Konstantin) Thon's Il Palazzo de'Cesari sul Monte Palatino, 1828, and elsewhere see John Gage in exh. cat., Paris 1983–4, pp. 132–3, where he also reports Dr Vivien Cameron's suggestion that Turner may also have been influenced by Gandy's proposals for the new Houses of Parliament (repr. exh. cat., Joseph Michael Gandy, 1771–1843, Architectural Association, 1982, no. D6).

The Athenaeum for 11 May 1839 dismissed the two pictures as being in Turner's ‘maddest manner’. Blackwood's Magazine for July–December described them as ‘both alike in the same washy-flashy splashes of reds, blues, and whites, that, in their distraction and confusion, represent nothing in heaven or earth, and least of all that which they profess to represent, the co-existent influence of sun and moon.’ But the Spectator for 11 May, introducing Turner as being ‘as gorgeous and mysterious as ever’, while regretting his extravagances found it ‘impossible not to admire the wondrous power of his art in representing an atmosphere of light. “Ancient Rome” ... is a blaze of orange-golden sunshine, reflected from piles of architecture that must be of marble to be so steeped in the hues of light.’ And the Art Union for 15 May described it as ‘Another of Turner's gorgeous works;—a reckless example of colour, but admirable in conception, and brilliant in execution’, adding rather strangely in view of the present appearance of the picture, ‘The critics who protest against his using too much yellow, will this year have to complain of his dealing too much in red.’ It may be that some colour has been lost, but Ruskin's remark, reviewing the pictures hung at Marlborough House in 1856, that ‘there was once some wonderful light in this painting but it has been chilled by time’ seems over-pessimistic.

For a watercolour ‘colour beginning’ of a bridge with much the same general effect and mood as the painting, though with none of the classical detail, see CCLXIII-351 (repr. in colour Wilkinson 1975, p. 113).

This is the earliest painting known to bear the third form of the Thomas Brown stamp on the back of its canvas, suggesting that this was the year in which this form of stamp came into use (see Butlin loc. cit.).

Published in

Butlin, Martin, and Evelyn Joll. The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner. revised ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.

Last modified 15 May 2016