For full functionality of this site it is necessary to enable JavaScript. Here are the instructions how to enable JavaScript in your web browser.
Works Thomas Girtin and Joseph Mallord William Turner after (?) John Robert Cozens

St Peter's and the Vatican, from above the Arco Oscuro

1794 - 1797

Primary Image: TG0570a: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), after (?) John Robert Cozens (1752–97), St Peter's and the Vatican, from above the Arco Oscuro, 1794–97, graphite and watercolour on paper, 22.9 × 38.1 cm, 9 × 15 in. Private Collection.

Photo courtesy of Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive, PA-F05206-0117 (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) after (?) John Robert Cozens (1752-1797)
  • St Peter's and the Vatican, from above the Arco Oscuro
1794 - 1797
Medium and Support
Graphite and watercolour on paper
22.9 × 38.1 cm, 9 × 15 in
Object Type
Collaborations; Monro School Copy
Subject Terms
Italian View: Modern Rome

Catalogue Number
Description Source(s)
Auction Catalogue


Appleby Brothers, 1965, £450; Christie's, 21 November 1978, lot 79 as 'View of the Vatican from the hills outside Rome' by Joseph Mallord William Turner, £1,600

Exhibition History

Appleby Brothers, 1965, no.9 as ’Extensive Italian Landscape with Rome and St. Peter’s in the distance’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner (catalogue not traced)

About this Work

This view of St Peter’s from above the Arco Oscuro, a tunnel close to the Villa Giulia, displays many of the signs that mark the unique collaboration between Girtin and his contemporary Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) at the home of Dr Thomas Monro (1759–1833). Here they were employed across three winters, probably between 1794 and 1797, to make ‘finished drawings’ from the ‘Copies’ of the ‘outlines or unfinished drawings of Cozens’ and other artists, amateur and professional, either from Monro’s collection or lent for the purpose. As the two young artists later recalled, Girtin generally ‘drew in outlines and Turner washed in the effects’. ‘They went at 6 and staid till Ten’, which may account for the generally monochrome appearance of the works, and, as the diarist Joseph Farington (1747–1821) reported, Turner received ‘3s. 6d each night’, though ‘Girtin did not say what He had’ (Farington, Diary, 12 November 1798).1

St Peter's from above the Arco Oscuro

As with the majority of the Roman views completed at Monro’s home, it has not been possible to trace the source of the view south west to St Peter’s. In general, Girtin and Turner worked from compositions by John Robert Cozens (1752–97) and, more specifically, from sketches and tracings that he made during or after his stay in Italy from November 1776 through to March 1779. Few of these survive, but the auction of the artist’s work held in July 1794 contained twenty-seven ‘books of sketches’ and many hundreds of drawings made on his travels, and, as Kim Sloan has argued, given that Monro’s posthumous sale included only a few sketches by Cozens, the patron must have borrowed much of the material from which Girtin and Turner worked (Sloan and Joyner, 1993, pp.81–82). The view of St Peter’s from above the Arco Oscuro was a popular one with a generation of British artists visiting Rome, and, if the Monro School subject was not copied from a sketch by Cozens, there are plenty of other candidates. The area was not then built up and the uninterrupted view from a dramatic rural setting attracted the attention of William Pars (1742–82), John ‘Warwick’ Smith (1749–1831) and Francis Towne (1739–1816) (see figure 1), all of whom used the same cypress tree to balance the form of the distant dome of St Peter’s. Even if we did not know that Girtin and Turner had not visited the city, a close examination of their watercolour would indicate that it was derived from a secondary source. Thus, the tunnel entrance, which features prominently in Towne’s view, is rendered as a double archway in the Monro School view, clear evidence of a misreading of someone else’s simple sketch or outline. On balance, although this watercolour may show a very similar view to those produced by Cozens’ contemporaries, none are so close as to suggest that one of his sketches was not the source for this image.

The watercolour has not been seen in public since it was sold at auction in 1978 as ‘View of the Vatican from the hills outside Rome’ by Turner, and it is known only from a black and white photograph. As far as the attribution of the work is concerned, therefore, all that can be said with any degree of confidence is that it appears to be typical of one of the less carefully worked larger watercolours produced at Monro’s house, and that there is no reason to suspect either that the pencil work is not by Girtin or that the work’s production departs from the general practice described by the artists themselves to Farington in 1798.

Rome: St Peter's and the Vatican, Seen from a Distance

The composition, if not the actual viewpoint of this watercolour, resembles an unpublished aquatint of a distant view of St Peter’s, of which there is a rare impression in the collection of the British Museum (see figure 1). David Alexander has suggested that the print was a collaboration between Frederick Christian Lewis (1779–1856) and Girtin, with the former adding aquatint to a soft-ground etching that was presumably worked up from a Monro School subject by Girtin (Alexander, 2021, p.379). If this was the case, then the print may have been executed as a trial for the Picturesque Views in Paris, in thirteen of which Lewis was responsible for the same combination of soft-ground etching and aquatint. However, as yet, I have not seen any clear evidence to relate the print directly to Girtin.

by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 The full diary entry, giving crucial details of the artists’ work at Monro’s house, is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1798 – Item 2).

Revisions & Feedback

The website will be updated from time to time and, when changes are made, a PDF of the previous version of each page will be archived here for consultation and citation.

Please help us to improve this catalogue

If you have information, a correction or any other suggestions to improve this catalogue, please contact us.