Rome the arch of constantine 1742

Keywords: Romearchconstantine

Work Overview

Rome: The Arch of Constantine
Date: 1742; Rome, Italy *
Style: Rococo
Genre: veduta
Media: oil, canvas
Dimensions: 37.6 x 26.8 cm
Location: Royal Collection (Buckingham Palace), London, UK

This is one of a series of five impressive paintings of Roman subjects that Canaletto executed for Joseph Smith. It is not entirely clear whether they were based on a new visit to Rome, or sketches the artist had made there in 1720. It is possible that he could additionally have been inspired by prints of Roman subjects in Smith's collection.

The arch was built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, to commemorate his victory over Maxentius. The view is playfully manipulated; the friezes and inscriptions he chose to depict are those which can be seen on the north side, but it is painted as though looked at from the south. Through it can be seen the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, and to the right the edge of the Colosseum. The main group of figures in the foreground, one of whom points with his stick, are probably Grand Tourists who have come to admire the ancient glories of the city.

The seated figure at the left, who has beside him a portfolio and ruler and is either writing or drawing, may well be intended as a self-portrait. This is particularly suggested by the figure's proximity to Canaletto's rather grand inscription asserting his authorship and the date of the painting, in a manner that replicates the carvings on the arch.

This painting is one of a unique group of five large upright views of Rome, depicting the major sights of the ancient city (RCIN 401002, RCIN 400700, RCIN 400713, RCIN 400524, RCIN 400714). Unusually for Canaletto, all the works are signed and dated prominently in the foreground. It is thought that the paintings formed a special commission for Canaletto's great friend and patron Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice, who sold his outstanding group of paintings, prints and drawings to George III. Their tall narrow format suggests that the paintings were originally designed for a specific location, probably decorating a room within Smith's palace on the Grand Canal, however the cycle does not fall into an obvious arrangement. Acquired by George III in 1762, the paintings were hung in English frames in the Entrance Hall of Buckingham House, alongside the Venetian views.

The works are of high competence, yet are not entirely typical of Canaletto. While Canaletto did visit Rome around 1720, it is unlikely that he made a return journey in the 1740s. Therefore, it is generally supposed that this painting, and the rest of the cycle, is based upon drawings made by Canaletto's nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (1720-1780), who entered his studio in the mid-1730s and had been in Rome during the relevant period. This indebtedness to Bellotto explains the treatment of the figures, the tendency towards heavy shadows, and the less-convincing three-dimensionality of the pictures, atypical of the style of Canaletto. 

This painting depicts The Arch of Constantine with various onlookers and other figures in the foreground. To the right of the arch is a portion of the Colosseum, and visible through the centre archway is S. Pietro in Vincoli, indicating that this view of the arch is from the south. An inscription is visible on the arch. 

Signed on a stone extreme left foreground: ANT. CANAL FECIT / ANNO MDCCXLII