Translated Jeff Matthews
Landscape painter Thomas Jones (1742 – 1803) resided in Italy from 1776 to 1783. He spent the last part of that period (1780-1783) in Naples, a brief period during which he created and imposed a new vision of the city. The Welsh artist left to those who came after him memories of his experiences, a notebook written upon his return to Britain, notes based on observations he had “scribbled down” during his stay in Italy.
Anna Ottani Cavina has edited for Electa publishers the first illustrated edition of this passionate account, a source of very valuable information. Jones loved to wander to unusual places, collecting impressions “on the fly ,” as it were, of our land. They were sketches and notes that he then later fleshed out within his own studio, and they are often dated precisely.
Among the many lovely oil paintings on paper that struck us, in particular, is “Ruined Buildings in Naples” (image 1). This is what is written on a public document on the website of Swansea's Glynn Vivian Art Gallery: “This work depicts the ruins of what are thought to be convent buildings on a hillside at Capo di Monte, Naples, the walls pitted with scaffolding holes.” The date on the work is 1782. The idea is that Thomas Jones painted some buildings in ruins on the Capodimonte hill in Naples.
Even Ottani Cavina (noted above) in her comment on the artist's diary (“Viaggio d'artista nell'Italia del Settecento. Il diario di Thomas Jones”, Electa, 2003, p.187, nota 385/”An Artist's Diary in Italy of the 1700s. The diary of Thomas Jomes,” Electa 2003, p.187, note 385) says that this study in oil was probably done in 1782 on the artist's new premises, rented on via Vico Canale, a small street near the one that climbs up to Capodimonte.
In reality, we hold that not only is the subject of the work not in that area but that even the date probably has to revised to 1783.
When we compare “Ruined Buildings in Naples” to the oil painting on canvas by Lancelot-Théodore Comte de Turpin de Crissé, “View of a Villa, Pizzofalcone, Naples” (c. 1819) (image 2), held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, we may note that Thomas Jones' attention was drawn to structures built above what is considered to be the oldest grotto in Naples, the famous chamber of Mithra at Pizzofalcone. You just have to look at the buildings in both works; they are identical.
We read in Jones' diary that he moved his studio in May of 1783 to the residence of Sir William Hamilton, Britain's Minister Plenipotentiary to the Bourbon Court in Naples. That residence was in the Chiaia section of Naples, a building known today as Palazzo Sessa, quite close to the grotto in question. We read that he found new opportunities to work from real scenes and that he enjoyed one of these in particular—an enormous grotto dug into the rock at Pizzo Falcone, where other structures had also been built. He finished some paintings there but did only a few additional sketches because time was short; he was in a hurry to return to Britain. But his brief comments fit “View of a Villa, Pizzofalcone, Naples” to perfection.
We hold that Jones must have done his small study (24.4 x 39.7 cm) not actually from Hamilton's dwelling but rather from behind the church of Santa Maria a Cappella Vecchia, adjacent to Hamilton's residence. You can't get that same view today because a newer building has been put up between the church and the grotto. Even the dome of the chamber of Mithra has undergone changes, but you can see some traces (image 3, photo from the Goethe Institute of Naples in Palazzo Sessa).
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