This view depicts the entrance to the famed Seiano Grotto in Posillipo, a 700-meter Roman tunnel built by Marcus Cocceius Nerva in 37 A.D., which linked Naples to Pozzuoli and the volcanic Phlegrean Fields. The tunnel runs beside the ruins of the famous tomb of the poet Virgil, which can be seen here atop the mountain. The inscribed monument crowned with the royal coat-of-arms at left was built to commemorate a series of successive improvements to the grotto undertaken by Alphonse V of Aragon, King of Naples, between 1442 and 1458 and Pedro Álvarez de Toledo y Zúñiga, Spanish viceroy to Naples, between 1532 and 1553.
Gaspar van Wittel arrived in Naples in 1699 at the invitation of Luis de la Cerda, Duke of Medinaceli and Viceroy of Naples, for whom he painted at least thirty-five topographical scenes, including a comparable view of the Grotto of Pozzuoli, signed and dated 1701, sold Sotheby’s, London, 3 December 1997, lot 47 (£210,500). This particular view was evidently a popular one, especially with foreign travelers on the Grand Tour, whom Vanvitelli depicts reading the monument alongside local noblemen and villagers. Including the ex-Sotheby’s painting and the present example, Vanvitelli painted this view on no fewer than thirteen occasions (for the other paintings, see G. Briganti, Gaspar van Wittel, Milan, 1996, pp. 272-274, nos. 381-391). Each depiction is characterized not only by differences in the staffage but in their size and format, with three examples taking an upright orientation.
The present painting, which is among Vanvitelli’s largest treatments of the subject, was one of twenty-four works commissioned from the artist by Cardinal Annibale Albani for his palace in Urbino. In his early biography of Vanvitelli, Lione Pascoli relayed that Albani had invited the artist and his son, Luigi, then aged around eighteen, to spend the summer holidays with him in Urbino (see L. Pascoli, Vite de’ Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Viventi, Treviso, 1981, p. 11). On account of Luigi’s birth in 1700, we can deduce that the stay, and thus Vanvitelli’s work for the Cardinal, must have begun circa 1718. The artist evidently worked for Albani over a period of several years, for one of his two views of Urbino is dated 1723 (Private collection).