Italy Series, April to June 1781

Richard Stephens

The surviving drawings from the Italy series comprise the sketches that Towne made on several excursions in the Roman campagna in the late spring and summer of 1781, after his return from Naples in April. They are numbered up to 64 (FT291) but, for convenience, the few drawings on which no number is now visible (FT251, FT270a, FT277a, FT280, FT285) are listed alongside others of the same or a similar subject. Another watercolour, of Arricia (FT297), is  inscribed "Italy" but is not numbered and has been placed in the Albano series on the grounds of its date and subject.

Licenza valley and Tivoli, April 1781

Towne’s first excursion after returning from Naples seems to have been to the Licenza valley, which had taken on a special meaning more recently than Tivoli and the Alban Hills, with their old associations with Claude and Dughet. The Licenza valley is the site of the villa of Horace, in whose poetry it was celebrated as a rural arcadia. However, until the researches of Allan Ramsay in the 1770s, the villa was believed to have been nearer Tivoli, so the discovery of Horace’s villa made a visit to the Licenza valley particularly current and interesting around the time of Towne’s excursion there. Ramsay commissioned several views from Jacob Phillip Hackert in 1780 for a projected publication of his discoveries. Late in life Towne made a copy of one of Hackert’s views (FT650). Other artist visitors include Jacob More (in 1777, 1778, and 1783) and William Pars.1

Towne was in Rome on 3 April 1781, when he read James White’s letter of 12 March.2 He may have begun this journey to the Licenza valley by passing through the Porta Pia (FT226) and, travelling east on the Via Tiburtina, he must have passed through Tivoli to reach Castello Madamo (FT246, FT247, FT248) and Vicavaro (FT249, FT250), some thirty miles from Rome, on 22 April. Vicovaro was at the southern end of the Licenza valley and only a short distance from the site of Horace’s villa. Given the vast interest in Tivoli, it is perhaps unlikely that Towne passed through it on his way to Vicovaro without a pause and White’s letter of 4 May suggests that Towne “must long ere now have enjoyed all the coolness of Frascati & Tivoli”.3 Certainly on his way back to Rome on 26 April he made one or two distant views of Tivoli (FT252, FT253) as well as two drawings on the road as he approached the city (FT254, FT255). A further drawing made on the Via Tiburtina near Tivoli (FT251) is undated but was perhaps made on this initial excursion.


Tivoli, May 1781

Towne appears to have been in Rome until early May, working on several drawings (FT184, FT185, FT208) of the Roman series but notably rural in character. Allowing three weeks for delivery, he probably received a letter from Ozias Humphrey, dated 17 April 1781, around this time.4 If so, perhaps the enthusiasm Humphrey expressed for the Roman countryside helped direct Towne’s mind once more beyond the city, for shortly afterwards Towne was in Tivoli again on what appears to be a second excursion east of Rome. Eighteen Tivoli drawings survive numbered between 13 and 42 (FT256, FT257, FT258, FT259, FT260, FT261, FT263, FT264, FT265, FT266, FT267, FT268, FT269, FT270, FT271, FT272, FT273, FT274). Those that are dated suggest that the visit took place in the third week of May, specifically 15 May (FT258, FT261), 16 May (FT264, FT269), 21 May (FT265, FT268), and 22 May (FT266, FT270, FT272, FT273, FT274). However, one view (FT257) is dated both 1 and 21 May, which throws Towne’s movements at the start of the month into some confusion. Perhaps Towne was now based at Tivoli and made occasional visits to Rome, such as on 26 April and 7 May; perhaps he made more frequent visits to Tivoli from Rome than allowed here, including one on 1 May. At any rate, Towne’s visit to Tivoli was over by 26 May, when he was back in Rome drawing the gardens of the Villa Barberini (FT222).

Rocca di Papa

After this point Towne’s movements become even less certain, for although most of the drawings that survive from Towne’s visits east of Rome were inscribed with their date of creation, none of the drawings that make up the remainder of the Italy series were dated. This is also reflected in the lesser degree of finish applied to these drawings when compared to the Tivoli work. It was standard practice to leave Rome for the countryside to its south-east during the summer and it is likely that Towne spent much of June and July sketching in the hill towns, though he was certainly in Rome for part of this period, as there are drawings of the city dated 27 June (FT212, FT215) and 28 June (FT211; see also FT218),5 and he was sketching in Rome on 3 July (FT204, FT213, FT216). 

Rocca di Papa was noted for its chestnut trees, and of the eight drawings known from the area, four are woodland studies (FT275, FT276, FT278, FT279). Drawings by John “Warwick” Smith of trees in the same area share the fluidity of Towne’s pen style in these studies and are no doubt indicative of the knowledge the two artists had of one another’s work; perhaps, too , the two men sketched together sometimes. These are now in the Oppé collection at Tate Britain. Three sketches show the town (FT280, FT281, FT282). Towne also drew the peak of Monte Cavo, noted for its views of Rome and supposedly the site of Hannibal’s encampment (FT283, FT284).


Towne made six drawings (FT285, FT286, FT287, FT288, FT289, FT290) at Frascati, north of Lake Albano, was where several of Rome’s grandest families built or bought villas. Four are in the grounds of Villa Mondragone (FT286, FT288, FT289, FT290), the largely sixteenth- and seventeenth-century construction of Cardinals Marco Sittico Altemps and Scipione Borghese. It took its name from the use of dragons in its decorative scheme (dragons were a heraldic emblem of a key ally of Altemps, Pope Gregorius XIII). A further drawing shows the Villa Grazioli, a seat of the Dukes of Bracciano (FT287).

Lake Nemi

Lake Nemi is the smaller and southern of two lakes in the Alban Hills, the other being Lake Albano itself. Only one study of the lake is known (FT291).

About the author

  • Independent Art Historian


  1. 1 Two of his views were sold by Colnaghi in 1945.
  2. 2 Perhaps he also saw the spectacle of the Easter Sunday fireworks on 15 April.
  3. 3 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 4 May 1781.
  4. 4 Letter from Ozias Humphry to Francis Towne, 17 April 1781.
  5. 5 Perhaps Towne saw the large fireworks display of 29 June celebrating the festival of St Peter and St Paul.


Article title
Italy Series, April to June 1781
Richard Stephens
Article DOI
Cite as
Richard Stephens, "Italy Series, April to June 1781", A Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816), (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016),

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