This drawing of the summer residence of the Popes, built for Urban VIII (1623-44), is one of a series commissioned by William Legge, the 2nd Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801) in 1754. The Dartmouth set of drawings are the most important group of the artist's finished compositions on paper, and as a draughtsman, Wilson's is best known through this commission.
The original group of sixty-eight drawings (first mentioned in correspondence between the 2nd Earl and Thomas Jenkins in 1754-5 and then again in Farington's diary between 1801 and 1811), was reduced to twenty-five, when discovered in a cupboard at Patshull House in 1948 having disappeared for over one hundered and fifty years. The drawings were then sold at Christie's, London by the The Right Honourable Earl of Dartmouth G.C.V.O.
The Dartmouth drawings are distinguished by their white mount with lilac wash border, on which the artist attached a small white label bearing the title of the work. The condition of the drawings is remarkable considering their age, having been kept away from the light for so long. The mount of the present drawing, however, painted in a somewhat fugitive pigment, has faded where it has been exposed to the light, the original colour showing in the present illustration.
Of these important drawings, Hoppner wrote, 'they were such as the Greeks would have made and put all others at a distance' (The Farington Diary, ed. James Greig, 1924, vol. III, p. 242), and Farington himself was probably referring to them when he wrote that they 'had all the qualities of his [Wilson's] pictures except the colour' (see: exhibition catalogue, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, Exhibition of the Works of Richard Wilson, 1936, p. 12).
Wilson probably arrived in Rome in 1752 with Thomas Jenkins, an artist and archaeologist who almost certainly negotiated the Dartmouth commission. The two artists accompanied the Earl on his travels in the environs of Rome and of Wilson's non-Roman views in the Dartmouth set, the majority are of well known monuments on the Grand Tour circuit.
Wilson's Italian landscapes were influenced by the work of Gaspar Poussin and of Claude Lorrain. In the 1750s Claude's view of Castel Gandolfo (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), could be seen in the Roman Palace of the Barberini family and it is almost certain that Wilson had this painting in mind when he chose his standpoint for the present drawing. Solkin comments, however, that Wilson's view provides a far more accurate account of the architecture and gives weight to Farington's comment that Wilson observed Claude but made 'his observations more exact' (see Ferens catalogue op. cit.).
Wilson used the Castel Gandolfo composition on a number of occasions, most notably in two oil paintings, one in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (fig. 1), and another version thought to be the first version and considered to be more delicately painted, in a private collection. A drawing in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Constable, op. cit., no. 64a) is possibly a preliminary study for the present drawing.
Since the Christie's sale in 1954 a further two drawings have gone missing and the majority of the recorded works are in museum collections, including Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford; Norwich Castle Museum; Museum of Art, Rhode Island; Paul Mellon Center for British Art, Yale; The Tate Gallery, London; Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery; The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; and The Huntington Library, California.