This picture, one of only ten works the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy, was executed in the spring of 1777, when Jones, accompanied by the artists William Pars (1742-1782) and Henry Tresham (1751-1814), and the young architect Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829), undertook a series of extensive sketching tours in the Roman campagna. On Thursday 1 May, he recorded:
'We now descended into the Campania in a direction toward the antient Ostia, and arrived at an antique bridge of One Arch & built of large square blocks of the Peperino Stone, called Ponte Loreto - As we found nothing else worthy of Observation in this dreary Plain, after measuring & making sketches of this piece of Antiquity, we returned by the same Route, ascending the hills till we reached our head quarters at Gensano' (see Opp).
Jones was born in Powys, Wales, the son of a landowner. After matriculating from Jesus College, Oxford, he moved to London where he studied under Henry Pars at William Shipley's art school in the Strand, and at the St. Martin's Lane Academy. Between 1763 and 1765 he studied under Richard Wilson (see lot 13), to whom he made a touching reference in his Memoirs the day before visiting Ponte Loreto:
'Wednesday 30th - All went to make Sketches about the Lake of Nemi - particularly a large Plane tree on the Edge of the Water call'd the Arbor Santa, which has a hollow within that I believe w'd contain a dozen persons & I was told here that my Old Master Willson when in this Country made use of it as a Study to Paint in' (Opp., p.58).
The influence of Wilson on his pupil, who the great landscape painter sought to train 'in the principles of light and shade without being dazzled by the flutter of colours', was great, and may have contributed to Jones' decision to depart for Italy in 1776.
Once in Rome, Jones quickly established himself among the many British and Irish artists resident in that city. He was much struck by the surrounding landscape remarking that it 'seems formed in a peculiar manner by Nature for the Study of the Landscape-Painter'. If he found the rest of the plain in which the Ponte Loreto was situated to be 'dreary', it was perhaps only because he saw much of the surrounding area as a 'beautiful and picturesque country - every scene seemed anticipated in some dream - It appeared Magick Land'.
In 1778 he visited Naples, moving there two years later with Maria Moncke, a widow with whom he had two daughters (although they did not marry until 1789). From the window of his apartment there he executed the extraordinarily fresh oil studies of the walls and roofs of neighbouring buildings which are now such a celebrated part of his oeuvre. The treatment of such subjects - together with the technique of applying paper over canvas, allowing oil to be applied almost as a watercolour - may have been learnt from the French artist Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, who was himself in Rome between 1775 and 1778, although there is no record of the two artists meeting. Returning to England in 1783, Jones painted less and less, living largely off his private income.
His Memoirs provide a detailed record of the artist's life. From these we learn that while in Italy he met John Robert Cozens, Jacob More, Anton Raphael Mengs, Francis Towne and Angelica Kauffman, and that when this picture was executed his Roman lodgings were near the Piazza di Spagna in a 'melancholy chamber' hung with 'dirty dismal pictures'. Yet they are of equal interest for their vivid depiction of the pleasures and perils of 18th Century travelling. Of this aspect, there is no more typical example than his account, on 1 May 1777, of the events which led up to the party's visit to Ponte Loreto:
'All the Company walked to Civita Lavinia & made some Sketches - as this town is a little out of the beaten track of the Roman perambulating painters, when we halted in the Great Square or Market place, we were surrounded by multitudes who pressed forward with great Eagerness to see what we were about - However oppressed by the throng, no Insult was offered - One or two boys indeed after leaning upon Our Shoulders till their Curiosity was fully gratified, fairly fell asleep in that Situation - Having passed the Town, we descended an antient paved Road followed by a rabble of boys - Here we sat down to make Sketches of some Ruins on the Roadside, but a sturdy impudent dog, who went by the name of Giacomo Rosso, perhaps from the circumstance of his having red hair, and who seemed to have great authority among his Companions, stood bolt upright between Pars & the Object he was drawing, staring him in the face the whole time, nor could he be persuaded to move out of this Position - "Very well Sieur Giacomo" says Pars "if you stand for your Portrait, I'll draw it directly" Accordingly with a few lines he sketched out such a striking & ludicrous resemblance of him that all the boys who were looking on, burst out into a loud laugh - This so irritated Giacomo Rosso, that retiring to a little distance with some of his boldest adherents, we could perceive they were arming themselves with Stones - The Affair now began to have a serious Aspect - & we thought it most prudent to enter into a truce with the young Savages, who are very dextrous at these kind of missile Engagements; accordingly by soothing language & a liberal distribution of Copper-money among the Chiefs, we purchased our Passport, & were suffered to march off in Peace.'