In September 1853 Roberts embarked on his second visit to Italy, accompanied by his lithographer Louis Haghe. Having painted several views in Venice in 1851, he returned two years later to produce a number of oils and watercolours of Rome, the most notable of which was Rome from the Convent of St. Onofrio, Mount Janiculum, now in the Scottish National Gallery. Roberts had intended that his visit would be more 'for recreation than employment', but as he recorded in various letters home, 'here is abundance for the painter'. 'Every day...I find something that prevents me from being idle', he wrote, 'the objects of interest far exceed my expectations'.
Roberts chose the present view of St. Peter's as 'the great temple is the only considerable object offered to the eye... [set] apart from the wilderness of habitations associated with it in the view from the other side of the edifice.' (Art Journal, 1857, p. 310.). In his record book Roberts has recorded the picture as 'St. Peters from the Villa-'; 'Madama' has been added later, in Helen Guiterman's opinion by the artist's hand. When exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1856 the picture's title was changed to 'St. Peter's looking back on Rome', perhaps in deference to a degree of debate concerning the exact vantage point Roberts used. The picture was certainly well received when exhibited. The Art Journal of 1856 thought it 'a production of much excellence'.
The picture is dedicated to Mrs Joseph Arden, wife of the Edinburgh barrister, who was, according to the Art Journal of 1857 (loc. cit), one of 'the most patriotic friends of contemporary Art...to whom our school is indebted for its rapid elevation to the present degree of excellence'. Arden's collection, 'formed with much taste and sound judgement', contained 'some of the most remarkable works that of late years have been produced', including Sir John Everett Millais' The Order for Release (Tate Gallery), The Stile (now entitled Waiting, Birmingham), and The Rescue (Melbourne), The Harem of a Bey by John Frederick Lewis, and pictures by E.M. Ward, Clarkson Stanfield, E.W. Cooke and Thomas Creswick. These artists, wrote the Art Journal, 'may paint worse, but they will never excel the quality of these examples'. Roberts was a friend and regular dinner guest of Arden's, so it is not suprising that 'some of (his) most interesting essays' including Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnac, A Recollection of Spain, and A Street in Grand Cairo, were also in the barrister's collection. The Ardens accompanied Roberts on this visit to Italy, sightseeing with him in Rome, Tivoli, Frascati and Albano.
We are grateful to Helen Guiterman and Krystyna Matyjaskiewicz for their help in preparing this entry.