John Robert Cozens was the son of Alexander Cozens and perhaps one of the most poetic of all English watercolourists. Constable said of him that he was all 'all poetry, the greatest genius that ever touched landscape'. As in the present watercolour his romantic landscapes were achieved with a limited palette of blues, grey and greens and his best work was inspired by his intensity of vision that accompanied his tours to Italy. Cozens achieves an image of immense power with simple ingredients; the small fishing village dwarfed by the majesty of nature with the surrounding mountains soaring above and away in the distance. The curling wiff of smoke, the minuet figures on the beach and the boat of the shore highlighting the relationship of man to his enviroment.
As Paul Oppé said of Cozens '[The virtue of the drawing] lies in the vision by which contrasting light and darkness, upward lines with downward, curves and angles - all embodied without distortion or exaggeration in natural feature - siezes and communicates the thrill or shock of sudden confrontation with the superhuman, or to use the old word the Sublime.'
The church in the centre of the composition is the church of San Pietro, the patron saint of the town.
Cozens visited Italy twice, first in 1776 in the company of Richard Payne Knight, from whom he parted in Rome, staying until 1779 and secondly with William Beckford in 1782. Beckford was a pupil of Cozens' father and only child of Alderman William Beckford, Lord Mayor of London and a man of considerable means. On Beckford's third journey to Italy he took J.R. Cozens as his draftsman and other members of his entourage included the tutor Dr. John Lettice, a musician called Burton, a physician and numerous other attendants. They arrived in the Tyrol and their route to Naples can be traced from Cozens' dated drawings in his seven sketchbooks now in the collection of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. Cozens stayed in Naples, travelling part of the time in the area of Salerno from July to December 1782, whereas Beckford left Naples in September of that year.
On his return to England Cozens worked up finished commissions from his drawings, most importantly the set of views for Beckford. Cozens drawings proved popular and for some subjects he completed a number of views.
The present watercolour is based on a study in the Whitworth's sketchbook, vol. III, p. 17 inscribed 'Citaria a fishing town on ye Gulf of Salerno' and dated 'September 29th ',( see fig. 1). Cozens executed four versions of this subject in total: one now in the collection of Leeds City Art Gallery; a smaller version, executed for Beckford, is in the collection of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (see fig. 2); and a version signed and dated 1790, formerly in the collection of Tom Girtin and now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The versions differ primarily in the disposition of the boats off the coast.
The present watercolour is notable for its distinguished provenance; prior to its entry into the present collection; it is first traced as belonging to Mr Hawkins, of Bignor Park, Sussex and Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. Hawkins had an eight day sale at Sotheby's commencing on 29 April of prints and drawings including many fine Old Master drawings, and on the 9 May 1850 he had a a sale described as a 'small but superb collection of drawings by modern artists' including Turner's important Fishmarket at Rotterdam and lot 123 Cozens', View on the Mediterranean between Vetri [Sic] and Salerno which was sold to Evans. Then it passed into the collection of Mrs Arthur Clifton who also owned Bell and Girtin, op.cit. nos. 140, 143, 147, before entering the prestigious Newall Collection; which was sold in these Rooms in December 1979, where it was purchased for the present collection.