This sweeping, sun-soaked view of the Tiber River with the Castel Sant’Angelo is a rare oil painting of Rome by Giuseppe Zocchi, whose atmospheric pictures of Tuscany, Lazio and the Veneto are enduring records of northern and central Italy in the mid-18th century and held a significant place in the development of European topographical painting.
Zocchi’s view-point is from the south bank of the Tiber, in the quarter of Tor di Nona, near the Arco di Parma. Immediately to the left is a small landing space and the Palazzo Altoviti, which was demolished in 1888 to make way for the Lungotevere along the waterfront. Beyond is the Vatican, crowned by the dome of Saint Peter’s, and just to the right are visible the lantern and pediment of the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Sassia and part of the façade of Santa Maria in Transpontina. Spanning the Tiber is the Ponte Sant' Angelo, topped with ten over life-size marble angels holding the Instruments of the Passion, commissioned by Clement IX and carved under the direction of Bernini c. 1667-1672. Bernini directed a team of eight sculptors, each of whom carved one angel, while he himself made two. Clement IX, on viewing them in the sculptor's studio, decided they were too good to be placed on the bridge and ordered copies made. Bernini secretly carved one of the replacements himself (the 'Angel with the Superscription') and it remains in situ. For centuries the Ponte Sant' Angelo was the only access from the center of Rome to the Vatican and, therefore, the only point of entry for pilgrims and processions bound for St. Peter's.
Dominating the right-hand side of the painting is the monumental fortress of Castel Sant' Angelo, whose reflection shimmers in the water below. The structure is surmounted by Pieter Antoine Verschaffelt's bronze angel of 1752, which replaced Rafaello da Montelupo's marble original. The Castel Sant' Angelo was originally conceived as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 76-138). Construction started c. A.D. 130 and was completed one year after his death in A.D. 139 by Antonius Pius. The architecture of the Castel Sant' Angelo is in the tradition of ancient Roman tombs, but compared to its direct prototype, the Augustus mausoleum, it is substantially larger. In the early Middle Ages the tomb was surrounded by ramparts and became the citadel of Rome, and it continued to be a place of refuge for Popes until the 18th century. Its name derives from a legend that tells how Saint Gregory the Great saw the Archangel Michael on the battlements of the fortress sheathing his sword and thus presaging the end of the plague of 590; ever since the fortress has borne the name of the holy angel. Paintings of the Castel Sant' Angelo survive from the 16th century and by the beginning of the 19th century it had become something of an icon of Rome.
Zocchi’s composition evidently draws inspiration from the works of Gaspar van Wittel, called Vanvitelli, who produced numerous versions of this stretch of the Tiber between the end of the 17th and the first decades of the 18th century and who had died only a few years prior to Zocchi’s arrival in Rome at the beginning of the 1740s. Vanvitelli’s influence is particularly felt in the grouping of flowerpots on the terrace of the first building on the left and in the stark illumination of the houses on the right bank of the river, which are bathed in warm afternoon light. But while Vanvitelli’s depictions of the view are rigid in their topographical accuracy, Zocchi’s canvas employs more freedom of composition, reminiscent of the works of Canaletto. Indeed, Zocchi had travelled to Venice on the endowment of his Florentine patron, the Marchese Andrea Gerini (1691-1766), where he became familiarized with the approach to topography evolved by Canaletto and practised by Marieschi. Like Canaletto, Zocchi no doubt used the camera obscura to record details of his views, which had the effect of producing canvases with alluringly wide and airy perspectives, such as the present one.
This monumental view was previously misattributed to both Vanvitelli and Andrea Locatelli but was recently recognized as an autograph work by Giuseppe Zocchi by Laura Laureati, who published it in 2010 in the catalogue for the exhibition of Master Drawings and Paintings presented by Jean-Luc Baroni at Cartlon Hobbs, New York. The presence of a preparatory drawing by Zocchi for this work (fig. 1) leaves no doubt that the painting is by the hand of the master. The viewpoint and the direction of the light are identical, although the drawing lacks a section of the foreground, including the small groups of figures that imbue the finished painting with its liveliness and humanity.
The sketch was formerly part of a fascinating album of landscape drawings by Zocchi, commission by Sir Horace Mann (1706-1786), that bore the inscription ‘This is the only record of the Artist Gius.e Zocchi. The Drawings made for the first Sir Horatio (Horace) Mann, (While envoy in Florence) in 1764.’ It is uncertain whether this refers to the date of execution or the date in which they came into Sir Horace Mann’s possession. As a result, it has not been possible to date the preparatory drawing, or, consequently, the present painting, with precision. However, both must have been executed at some stage between the early 1740s, when Zocchi first arrived in Rome, and 1764.