Most of my painting subjects have had some connection to my direct and memorable experiences as a traveller. But with some subjects, the strong connection has evolved AFTER I’ve start drawing back in the studio – and this was the case with my largest piece of 2022, “Rome From Terrazza Viale del Belvedere”.
I have taken in this scene a few times on trips to Rome, and it’s one of the best panoramic-viewing spots in the city. And it also has the noteworthy reputation of being the place where lovers in Rome often share their first kiss! (Unfortunately, not my experience of it.)
In the moment with vistas like this, I often get lost in the vastness of what I’m looking at. My eyes tend to soften and everything takes on a dream-like quality. It’s only later when I check out the photos I took that I see the individual pieces of the vista emerge. And in the case of this photo, I immediately wanted to paint it – to experience it from a sharpened perspective and give each element some attention.
Once back in the studio, I began the pencil drawing and also began to research some of the buildings. With complex subjects like this, it’s impossible to know all the buildings so I will usually do research on those that pique my curiosity. A big plus of going through the research is that I always uncover some interesting stories.
For example, I was very curious about the churches in this vista. I discovered the pointy steeple in the left foreground belongs to All Saints’ Anglican Church, an English church that has interesting roots back to the 1700’s. During the heyday of the Grand Tour, many wealthy young people were sent to Rome to enhance their worldly education, but not to the detriment of their religious upbringing, so the first English church in Rome was established to serve (preserve?) these travellers and any other faithful English in the city. Over the course of two centuries, this church congregation held services in many different locations until the current building was erected on Via del Babuino in the late 1880’s. That gorgeous steeple didn’t appear until 1937, and not long after, the church was closed during WWII as England became Italy’s enemy. There’s a great story of the last two women at the church defiantly singing English hymns at the top of their lungs as they were dragged off church property by police in 1940. (Can’t you just see Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and gang in “Tea With Mussolini”!) Today the church is thriving.
The church right behind All Saints’ that I couldn’t initially identify is San Giacomo in Augusta, a church, it turns out, that I have been inside as refuge from the summer heat and crowds on Via del Corso. But I knew nothing of its history at the time. From my painting research, I discovered it was also known as San Giacomo degli Incurabili – Saint James of the Incurable – as its humble origin in mid-1300’s was as a small chapel incorporated within a large hospice for those with leprosy, the plague, and incurable syphillis. The current church was completed around 1600, sacked in the mid-1800’s and turned into a horse stable, and then re-established 10 years later. The hospital beside the church remained in operation until 2011, as Rome’s largest emergency department!
San Giacomo in Augusta has some odd architectural features. It has 2 bell-towers, very unusual in Italian church architecture. And its front entrance is not at 90 degrees with Via del Corso because the church was built on the angle of the hospital structure on the angled street beside it – there’s no straight view from the street into the church. (I have got to check this out next time I’m there. You can see this odd angle if you Google-map it.) And then there are the grasses and moss covering the roof, another unusual sight – it’s as if new life is springing from the building after such a long history of suffering.
I loved learning about these little-known churches in this view southwest towards the very recognizable St. Peter’s Basilica. I also loved painting/exploring those parts of homes and buildings we don’t often get to see behind the well-groomed façades – the back gardens (with palm trees!), the messy terraces and rusting fire escapes.
So even though I didn’t have a “goofy tourist” or especially transcendent experience here on Terrazza Viale del Belvedere when I visited in-person, the experience of painting this piece was incredibly rich and rewarding. And hopefully when we all next visit the Terrazza, we will look upon this view with new knowledge… and maybe with a little kiss too?!
“Rome From Terrazza Viale del Belvedere”, 11.25″ x 16″ ink and watercolour – SOLD