'We set off towards the church of St. Peter, which was beautiful in the light from the clear sky, illuminated and distinct in all its detail. We abandoned ourselves to the enthusiasm of those who are prepared to enjoy this magnificence and this grandeur' (extract from J.W. Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-88), Berlin, 1835).
Antonio Joli apparently managed to translate into paint what Goethe described so well in words: the buildings are indeed described with startling clarity and attention to detail, and yet the golden light gives them a softness which appeals to collectors today as much as it did to the Grand Tourists who may have commissioned such vedute. This particular view was adapted by Joli a number of times and it was also popular amongst Joli's contemporaries. Gaspar van Wittel is known to have painted at least eleven versions of the site. Vanvitelli's paintings are mostly based upon his drawing, in the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele, Rome (see G. Briganti, Gaspar van Wittel, Milan, 1996, p. 399, no. D321, illustrated p. 400), and Joli's lower viewpoint, by contrast, brings the viewer much closer in to the Ponte Sant'Angelo. While Vanvitelli includes a palazzo with an extensive terrace in the lower left corner of his compositions, which Briganti assumes to be a compositional device invented by the artist, Joli's view appears to be topographically accurate.
Although born in Modena, Joli would spend most of his life travelling around Italy and further afield to Germany, Spain and to England, where he would gain a fine reputation as a scenografo and vedutista. As a young man he travelled to Rome, where he studied the vedute and capricci of Giovanni Paolo Panini, under whom he almost certainly trained. By 1718 he must have established himself in that city for he was granted the important commission to decorate the Villa Patrizi in Rome, and by 20 April 1719 he had become a member of the Accademia di San Lucca.
Several versions of this painting testify to their popularity with Joli's clientele and indicate that Joli probably based his variant compositions on drawings made during his stay in the Eternal City. See, for example, the catalogue of the exhibition, Vedute italiana dell '700 in collezioni private italiane, Museo Diocesano d'Arte Sacra, Sant'Apollonia, Venice, 19 September-8 November 1987, pp. 91-2, no. 60, ill. p.102; New York, P. & D. Colnaghi, 17 November-23 December 1994, no.18, pl. XI, which differs in the staffage and includes an extension of the riverbank lower left; and other paintings sold at Christie's London on 1 April 1960, lot 104; 2 July 1965, lot 93; 1 July 1966, lot 15; 29 June 1973, lot 44; 9 April 1990, lot 84; and 9 July 1993, lot 98, with slight variations in the staffage and dimensions to the present painting.