The designer and art consultant Lady Caroline Percy chooses a vision of Ancient Rome by Turner.
Lady Caroline Percy chooses Ancient Rome: Agrippina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus by J.M.W. Turner
‘A number of Turner paintings fall into my favourites category. The particular appeal of this one is that it depicts a moment in antiquity that has always intrigued me. Germanicus, heroic general and proconsul of Gaul, was closely related to two infamous and degenerate emperors, his son Caligula and grandson Nero.
‘I enjoy Turner’s vision of the story and impressionistic treatment of light, washing a golden veil over the Roman architecture and shimmering reflections on the water of the Tiber. Agrippina’s boat glides into harbour with her husband’s ashes at the end of the long journey from Antioch, where he perished.’
Lady Caroline Percy is an interior designer and consultant in fine art and antiques, founder of Hotspur Design and co-founder of Historic Decoration.
Charlotte Mullins comments on Ancient Rome
This late painting by J. M. W. Turner was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1839, as one of a pair. Its companion, Modern Rome: Campo Vaccino, depicts the ruins of ancient Rome with goats picking their way between remaining columns. By contrast, this painting shows ancient Rome alive, imagined as a mirage of spectacular buildings and bridges that glow and pulse at this liminal time, as the sun sets and a full moon rises.
Nominally, the painting shows the widow Agrippina being rowed to shore across the Tiber, holding the ashes of her poisoned husband, Germanicus — a Roman general — in an urn. This was a favourite subject of history painters: Nicolas Poussin captured the moment of death; Peter Paul Rubens conjured a double profile ‘portrait’ of Germanicus and his wife; Benjamin West depicted Agrippina landing in Brundisium (now Brindisi) in Puglia. West had the story right, whereas Turner either applied artistic licence or was misinformed because, in AD19, Agrippina conveyed the ashes from Antioch back to Italy, landing on the east coast and not in Rome.
This was Turner’s second pairing of modern and ancient Italy. With their hazes of light and indistinct details, many critics didn’t understand them. Blackwell’s Magazine described them as ‘washy-flashy splashes of reds, blues and whites that, in their distraction, represent nothing in heaven or earth’. Today, the paintings are seen as ethereal examples of Turner’s late work that reflect on the passing of time and the rise and fall of empires.
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