By 1819, Europe had returned to relative peace, Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo and tourists were once again travelling the continent. This was the year the painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner first journeyed into Italy. At the age of 44 he created a collection of images detailing his travels as he meandered his way to Naples.
Upon his death in 1851, Turner gave his sketchbooks to the British people and some of these are now available to look through online, while you can thumb through others, under supervision, at the Tate Britain Gallery. Upon discovering this I sought out the books relating to his tours of Italy and have had fun tracking his route though Umbria, where I now live.
Turner’s skill in conveying, in very simple lines, the complexities of the Italian countryside cannot be understated. Using these small sketches and with the aid of my own knowledge of the area and Google maps, I have been able to follow his tour along Umbria’s eastern borders.
Crossing the Alps
JMW, like many before, crossed the Alps at Mont Cenis through the Simplon pass and travelled down through Milan to Florence. Then making his way over to the Adriatic coast, visiting Ancona and negotiating the Apennines, into Umbria. Passing through Macerata, Coliferito and Pale, his first major destination in the green, landlocked province was Foligno.
Wandering around Umbria in the 1800s was much like driving around the countryside today in a well-worn Fiat Panda with a dodgy suspension over rough terrain. The ride was very rickety, which is evident from some of the drawings that he did along the way. Sadly, in Umbria, the intervening 200 years have not seen much in the way of highway progress and the state of many of its roads still leave much to be desired. Potholes, landslides and large muddy puddles were as much a part of travel then, as they are now.
The coach didn’t stop in Foligno but by following the order and pictures, it seems the travellers simply skirted the town walls and headed on out along the via Flaminio in the direction of Terni. Here the trip takes Turner along the foothills of the Apennines through the village of Sant Eracole, the Torre di Matigge and passed the towering vistas of Trevi.
It looks likely that one of the stops was at the
Roman temple of Clitumnus, where he made a number of sketches of the scenery and a detailed study of the building. After this break the bumpy ride continued on to Spoleto and here again it looks like Turner just rode around the town walls, making notes of the town as he went.
He did manage to catch some views of the Rocca that dominates the skyline and an interesting drawing below the Torre d’Olio, a view that has changed quite a bit over time. Leaving Spoleto, he recorded the Ponte della Torri and the castle, a picturesque spot that is still a popular photo opportunity with today’s visitors.
Carrying on along the via Roma and over
the Somma pass he sketched the village of Palazzaccio di Strettura with what was then a ruined castle nestled in the valley. Today this ancient fortification is a modern, refurbished hotel and makes a great resting point on the way to Rome.
Terni and the waterfalls
Reaching Terni, Turner jotted down a few of the town’s Baroque buildings and made sketches of the town’s inhabitants as he relaxed. The Terni of today is a different place from the one he visited. After his time there the industrial revolution changed much of the landscape as it became a thriving steel centre. This was further altered when 80% of the town was bombed during the Second World War. Sadly many of the drawings from this time show places long lost to development and war.
While in the area, Turner, like many artists and poets before him, took a detour into the hills above the town to visit the magnificent, 2,000 year old, man-made waterfalls at Marmore, the village of Papigno and tranquil waters of Lake Piediluco. He spent a good many hours around the area, chronicling the landscape and making notes of the hills and villages, before heading off to Narni.
The magical land of Narni
Narni, dominated by its formidable castle, is one of those hill towns that is visible for miles around. Turner recorded his progress towards the town gates with a series of drawings. Judging by the quantity of sketches he made, it’s fair to suggest he spent at least the night here.
Narni is famous for its Augustinian Roman bridge, much ruined, as you’d expect after
2,000 years but still with sufficient structure to be of interest. Here he drew various views around this landmark, as well as the interesting looking medieval bridge with its own tower at one end. Unfortunately in an attempt to slow the Nazi’s retreat during WWII the Allies saw fit to bomb this old monument. While an arch and three pillars of the roman bridge can still be found, you can now only imagine the other pretty bridge.
On to Rome
Continuing south down the slopes of the Narni hills he finally left Umbria and entered the province of Lazio. At this point the coach wound its way along the River Tiber in the wide open plains of the Tiber Valley. Passing through the villages of Borghetto, Otricoli and Castello Formiche, drawing as he travelled until finally reaching the town of Civita Castellana. Where it looks like he spent another day exploring.
From here Turner bounced on to Rome where he made a series of sketches of the ancient monuments along with a number of paintings. After the eternal city he went on to the culturally diverse Naples and like many tourists both then and now he took in the spectacle of Pompeii. Again producing a number of watercolours from the resulting drawings he made on his trip.
Returning to Umbria
Turner made his return journey in the winter, which is perhaps why he appears to have drawn less. He retraced his path through Rome and back up to Umbria, passed Borghetto, Narni, Terni and Trevi once more, making a few sketches as he drove by. At Foligno this time the coach went on to Assisi and probably below Perugia before skirting Lake Trasimeno, leaving Umbria then heading towards Cortona. As this part of his journey is
not documented, it can only be assumed that this is the route he took. This is a flatter road with bigger towns to stop.
Despite spending roughly two weeks travelling around Umbria, all that remains are his sketches. The draw of Venice, Rome, Naples and Pompeii seemed to have been greater subjects for his paintings. The diaries of his journey do make interesting viewing and while some areas have suffered destruction and heavy industrialisation there are many parts that have hardly altered at all over the last 200 years.
Turner’s Tour Map