The eighteenth-century Venetian painter Bernardo Bellotto painted this view of the west end of the Roman Forum in around 1743, when he was still in his early twenties. Bellotto was the nephew and pupil of Venice’s most famous view painter, Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. By the time he left Canaletto’s busy studio in the early 1740s to commence a career as an independent artist, Bellotto had quite thoroughly absorbed his uncle’s painting manner and techniques.
Despite his pedigree and training, Bellotto was by nature an autonomous soul. At an early age, he decided to leave the security of Venice and to explore Italy and, eventually, central and northern Europe. These travels stimulated the young artist to develop his own distinctive images of towns and landscapes – works that were to become highly valued. Ruins of the Forum dates from his very first sojourn in Rome. The painting is one of a group of seven large views showing the city’s most famous landmarks.
By the eighteenth century, the Forum – the centre of public life, commerce and religious worship in ancient Rome – was popularly known as the ‘Campo Vaccino’ (cow field). Some of the most famous architectural ruins of antiquity (such as the three prominent columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, seen in the foreground of this view) were still visible, though others were wholly or partly buried under the soil of the Campo. Full archaeological excavation of the area did not take place until the nineteenth century, so the Forum of Bellotto’s time remained a sleepy and poetic reminder of the decay of ancient Rome’s former glories. In the National Gallery of Victoria’s painting, Bellotto contrasts the ancient ruins with the formidable presence of Michelangelo’s bell tower for the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline Hill, and with the comings and goings of daily life in Rome, including the eager ‘Grand Tourists’ playfully examining the monuments.
Text by Carl Villis from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 98.