Roberts had travelled extensively on sketching tours through France, Flanders, Spain, Germany and the Holy Land before visiting Italy in 1851. He confined himself to Northern Italy on that occasion but in September 1853 set out to join his friends Charles and Louis Haghe on a trip to Rome. They met in Paris and travelled through France, then by diligence along the coast road to Genoa, by sea to Leghorn [Livorno] and train to Pisa then Florence, before returning to Leghorn for sea passage to Civita Vecchia and coach to Rome, arriving in late October. Roberts' main aim was to paint an interior of St Peter's and he had not intended to stay long in Rome. But permission to work in the basilica was so restrictive that it took him much longer than he had planned. When not able to paint in St Peter's he made sketches around the city.
The present watercolour of Piazza Navona is typical of Roberts' on-the-spot studies. Architecture is drawn carefully in perspective, with highlights picked out in white and areas of sky and cloud roughed in to strengthen the composition. Some figures are there in the initial outline but most have been added in quick wash once the architecture was complete. After his return to London Roberts used this study as the basis for an oil painting, dated 1857, now in the collection of Sheffield City Art Galleries. It was painted for James Tennant Caird and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 and Royal Scottish Academy in 1861.
The Piazza Navona is on the site of the ancient stadium of the Emperor Domitian. On the right is the small ancient church of Sant'Agnese in Angone, given towers and dome in the 16th century and a flowing Baroque façade by Borromini. The latter's rival, Bernini, created the Fountain of the Rivers in front of the church and centre of the Piazza. A Roman obelisk moved from the Circus of Maxentius sits atop massive rocky grottoes, with large sculptures personifying rivers at the four corners of the globe - the Danube, Ganges, Nile and Plate.
We are grateful to Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.