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Francis Towne at the BM, Part III - The Vigna Martinelli

28 April 2016

Francis Towne
Vigna Martinelli, 1780
Watercolour
British Museum, London

One of the most prosaic views Towne made in Italy simply shows a view of the scrubby, barren Campagna with a large, non-descript villa complex in the middle distance and the hills beyond. The composition does not contain any famous monument from antiquity, or landmark of modern Rome, but it was clearly significant enough for Towne to include in his bequest to the British Museum. The drawing is labelled ‘Vigna Martinelli’ and it is with this kernel of information that we can build a hugely important story about artistic sociability and the associational values of certain sites for British artists in Rome during the eighteenth century.

We get a useful description of the Vigna Martinelli in Thomas Jones’s Memoirs. In the summer of 1778 he noted:

'During the last as well as the present and succeeding Months, I made many very agreeable excursions to a Villa near S’o Agnese without the Porta Pia – This Villa was situated upon a gentle Ascent which commanded a view of the City of Rome on One hand, and the Campagna with the Appenine Mountains on the Other – it belonged to Sig’re Martinelli, a Roman, of good family, but rather reduced in Circumstances – He had originally a large extent of Vineyards about it, but had been obliged to dispose of the greater part to Barazzi the banker who had built himself a handsome Country House in the Neighbourhood – With this Sig’re Martinelli, little Couzins the Landscape Painter lodged in Rome and as he was not well in health, when the Weather was favourable, resided at this Villa for the benefit purpose – Here I made some studies in Oil of the surrounding Scenery and was accommodated with a nice Poney whenever I pleased to take an airing with little Cousins and his JackAss.'

This characteristically evocative passage gives us much detail about the practical mechanics of working in Rome in the eighteenth century. From Jones we learn that the villa was located along the Via Nomentana, the Consular road which ran north east out of Porta Pia, near the basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura. This is a surprisingly important detail for understanding the emergence of certain views in the works of British artists. 

Richard Wilson
The Temple of Bacchus, 1754
Black and white chalk on blue paper
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York

The complex of Sant’Agnese, and the adjoining church of Santa Costanza, were a familiar view amongst artists. Claude had produced a striking drawing of the church, now in the British Museum. A generation before Jones and Towne, Richard Wilson had visited the area and made a drawing of the church for the Earl of Dartmouth, labelled ‘Temple of Bacchus’ and now at the Morgan Library in New York. Wilson seems to have liked the area producing two further studies for Dartmouth, one of the Ponte Nomentana, a Roman bridge further along from Sant’Agnese where the road crosses the river Aniene, and a broader view of the Campagna with the Ponte Nomentana visible in the middle-distance. The second of these is a view Towne also drew, although from a slightly lower vantage point, obscuring the Ponte Nomentana completely. Wilson also made studies of other monuments along the via Nomentana, including the remains of a Roman tomb, known as the Sedia del Diavolo, which has featured in an earlier post. Robin Simon has also pointed out that Wilson enjoyed drawing scenes along the Aniene river, this raises the possibility that he spent his villeggiatura somewhere in the area and may in fact have been based at the Villa Martinelli?

Certainly, by the time Towne reached Rome in 1780, the Vigna Martinelli had established itself as an important locus for artists. Jones made a number of oil sketches of the area – including an oil sketch of a cave near Sant’Agnese – and a panoramic view of villas and walls which appeared recently at Christie’s. Jones was staying at the villa with John Robert Cozens, who also made a number of dramatic views of the cavern close to Sant’Agnese, including a great watercolour now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Jones’s mention of a ‘JackAss’ and ‘poney’ suggests that we can cast the radius of subjects covered by himself and Cozens from the villa even wider, although surely not as wide as the Castelli Romani as some have suggested? But it may have been on one of these sketching expeditions that Cozens discovered the Sedia del Diavolo, which would form the basis of one of his most atmospheric watercolours made for William Beckford in 1782 and perhaps, further afield, the gardens of the Villa Negroni.

Thomas Jones
A Cavern near S. Agnese Outside Porta Pia at Rome, 1778
Oil on Italian writing paper, varnished
National Museum & Galleries of Wales

Towne almost certainly stayed at the villa in the autumn of 1780, possibly with John ‘Warwick’ Smith. A remarkable drawing by Smith, in the Oppé collection in the Tate, shows the villa complex, in a manner similar to Towne, but from a different angle. Towne himself produced drawings of views all around the villa, including a fabulous monochrome drawing of the villa itself which we sold some years ago and the famous depiction of the Sedia del Diavolo. He also drew the gates of the villa in a charming watercolour which was also included in his bequest to the BM. 

A detail from Giovanni Francesco Falzacappa, Carta topografica del suburbano di Roma, 1830, showing the Vigna Martinelli in red. 

This brings us to the villa itself. I have long puzzled over precisely where it is in relation to the via Nomentana and Sant’Agnese. The Towne exhibition has finally helped me work it out. Jones’s description is useful, as it mentions the sale of part of the property to Francesco Barazzi. Barazzi was a significant financier who acted as banker to many significant Grand Tourists, including artists. A plan of his property was made at his death and corresponds to a plot of land delineated in the most detailed early map of the area Giovanni Francesco Falzacappa’s Carta topografica del suburbano di Roma which was published in 1830. The plan shows the villa complex was situated to the south east of Sant’Agnese, on an area of elevated land, the ‘gentle Ascent’ mentioned by Jones. It is clear from Falzacappa that even by 1830 few buildings had been constructed to obstruct a view both of Rome itself and across the campagna to the Castelli Romani in the east. From Smith and Towne we gain an idea of the villa complex itself, with the large, whitewashed building at its centre and a series of outlying agricultural buildings. Sadly nothing of Vigna Martinelli survives today, the villa itself was located roughly on the site of the circonvallazione, or Roman ring-road, in the modern area of Pietralata. 

John ‘Warwick’ Smith
Vigna Martinelli, 1778
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Tate, London

The landscape from the Porta Pia to the Ponte Nomentana provided important material for British artists during the eighteenth century. Familiar from the works of Claude and Wilson, Towne would have undoubtedly have been keen to explore the area shortly after his arrival in Rome. The villa Martinelli provided a convivial place to stay and a sketching companion in the form of ‘Warwick’ Smith. We can therefore reconstruct a complex motivation for many of the views in the BM show, from the practical location of the Villa Martinelli to the association with Claude and Wilson. I am particularly interested in another, similar villa, which was set-up for visitors, that of Thomas Jenkins at Castel Gandolfo. Jenkins, a dealer and banker, attracted both patrons and artists to his villa complex at the heart of the Castelli Romani. This will form the subject of a future post. 

Francis Towne
Vigna Martinelli, 1780
Pen and ink and grey wash
Private collection, US, formerly with Lowell Libson Ltd.