Jan Both was one of a group of Dutch artists that made the long and often dangerous journey across the Alps to Italy, said at the time to be the heart of great painting. He stayed for ten years, becoming a leader in the development of Dutch Italianate landscape showing hardy peasants against softly glowing skies.
This painting is unusual for Both. He shows an urban view of architecture rather than a landscape and his view of the Ripa Grande – the old port of Rome – is partly imaginary. In his other paintings from a different viewpoint the scene is more recognisable. It seems that in painting this picture on his return to the Netherlands, Both is painting partly from memory and partly from imagination, but always with affection for the sunlit land he had left.
Jan Both was one of a group of Dutch artists that made the long and often dangerous journey across the Alps to Italy, said at the time to be the heart of great painting. He stayed for ten years, coming to admire and be influenced by the work of the great French landscape painter Claude, who was then living in Rome.
Both, like other Dutch artists in Italy, appears to have been more influenced by his surroundings than by the great Italian masters of the past and became a leader in the development of Dutch Italianate landscapes. His pictures often feature hardy peasants against softly glowing skies, sometimes against the architecture and monuments of ancient Rome, subverting the ideal of great art: large paintings of Bible stories or historical events. His influence is particularly clear in some works of Nicolaes Berchem – for instance Mountainous Landscape with Muleteers. The contemporary Italian artist, Salvator Rosa, was scathing about their work – particularly their interpretation of the Italian peasant as, in his view, idle and scruffy – but Claude must have found their work agreeable, and even collaborated with Jan Both.
This painting is unusual for Both: he shows an urban view of architecture rather than a landscape, and his view of the Ripa Grande is partly imaginary. The Ripa Grande was the old port of Rome, at the foot of the Aventine, the furthest south of the seven hills of Rome; it had long since decayed. The tall central tower is just about recognisable as that of Santa Maria della Torre, although the windows are apparently different from the original. The tower stood on the banks of the Tiber beside the Ripa Grande, but the rest of the rundown buildings are Jan Both’s invention.
Both’s hardy peasants idle away their time playing cards in the evening sun. An old man leans on a boulder to smoke. A younger man squats out of the way, while another relieves himself against a wall. Up on the roof, others work under a makeshift canopy – whether mending or dismantling, it’s hard to tell. A man in a blue jacket perches precariously on the edge, stick in hand, a wide crack opening up in the wall beneath him.
One man, wearing a red hat, his hands clasped behind him, gazes intently at the view. Shown in more detail than the other characters, he ignores the man crouched beside him. The distant landscape he surveys is misty, and the gold light left by the vanished sun casts shadows over the still water of the River Tiber. It is as if he is looking so intensely in order to remember what he sees, as Both himself may once have done.
In other paintings that Both made of the Ripa Grande from a different viewpoint the scene is more recognisable. It seems that in making this picture on his return to the Netherlands, he is painting partly from memory and partly from his imagination, but always with affection for the sunlit land he had left.
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