Galleria Borghese logo
Search results for
No results :(

Hints for your search:

  • Search engine results update instantly as soon as you change your search key.
  • If you have entered more than one word, try to simplify the search by writing only one, later you can add other words to filter the results.
  • Omit words with less than 3 characters, as well as common words like "the", "of", "from", as they will not be included in the search.
  • You don't need to enter accents or capitalization.
  • The search for words, even if partially written, will also include the different variants existing in the database.
  • If your search yields no results, try typing just the first few characters of a word to see if it exists in the database.

Basilica of Maxentius

Canal Giovanni Antonio called Canaletto

(Venice 1697 - 1768)

This work is a pendant to the painting of the Colosseum (inv. 540), and one of the rare examples in the capital’s public collections of a view of Rome by Canaletto. The composition is dominated by the basilica of Maxentius, depicted in a foreshortened view looking upward from a lower point, accentuating its grandeur. On the right-hand side of the scene is the 17th-century façade of the church of Santa Francesca Romana, cut in half. Its colour scheme also provides a contrast to that of the basilica. In the background, the vertical thrust of the Romanesque bell tower is offset by the adjacent convent, adorned with Venetian chimneys, in a playful combination of realism and invention typical of the painting genre known as the capriccio. In the background, the dimly defined silhouette of the Colosseum stands out on the horizon. The sky is rendered in broad, textured brushstrokes, varying between hues of silver and soft pink. In the foreground before the low wall, only the bright splashes of colour in the characters’ garments break up the brownish tones of the terrain, heightened by its solid rocky masses.

The work was painted around 1754-1755, based on a youthful drawing from the early 1720s. It was purchased in 1908 on the London antiques market on the advice of Ettore Modigliani, Director of the Pinacoteca di Brera. In the past, it had been attributed to Bernardo Bellotto or the young Canaletto, but more recently it is thought to be a mature work by the latter. Although - as Roberto Longhi noted at an early stage – “in truth, the distinction between a certain period of Canal [Canaletto] and Bellotto has yet to be clarified” (1928, p. 225).

Object details

oil on canvas
cm. 27x36

London, Walter I. Abraham. Purchased by Italian State, 1908

  • 1994 Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte
  • 2000 Lodève, Musée de Lodève, Hôtel du Cardinal de Fleury
  • 2002 Città del Messico, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
  • 2015 Aix-en-Provence, Hotel de Caumont
  • 2016-2017 Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
  • 2018 Roma, Palazzo Braschi
  • 2020 Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des beaux-arts
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914 Luigi Bartolucci e Augusto Cecconi Principi (?)


Under a grey sky, which fades to pinkish hues in the lower part, the left half is taken up by a depiction of the north façade of the basilica of Maxentius, theatrically heightened by the low viewpoint. The perspective lets us glimpse the coffered ceilings of the barrel vaults, while the dense clumps of vegetation sprouting on top of the pillars bring out the sublime fragmentary nature of the architecture. When Canaletto chose the subject of the painting, taken from a youthful drawing of 1719-20, the basilica had not yet been given that name: until the early 19th century, the ruins of the building were erroneously identified as the Templum pacis, a temple of peace built by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty to celebrate their victory over Jerusalem (Salatin 2018, p. 92). As a counterpoint to the prominence of the ancient complex, the 17th-century façade of the basilica di Santa Francesca Romana is depicted in the right of the picture, sharply defined in its curved contours, also heightened by the whiteness of the travertine cladding, though it is cut in half in the framing. In the background, beyond a low wall, one can make out the Romanesque laterite bell tower of the church with its mullioned two-light windows, and the neat, solid mass of a convent. Canaletto added Venetian-style chimneys to it, hovering between the veduta ideata (realistically drawn, though completely imaginary scenes) and architectural capriccio (in which architectural elements, though correct, are combined in a rather strange fashion). Details of this kind, combined with the arbitrary scaling down of the proportions of the buildings, reveal the primary interest of the painter who, harking back to his early training in the world of Venetian theatre, is prepared to sacrifice topographical accuracy for greater compositional balance (Joyeux, in La Grande Bellezza 2020). In the centre of the canvas, the vague outline of the Colosseum stands out on the horizon, slightly darkened by patches of bushy vegetation. Against such a dramatic architectural backdrop, the few human figures on the rough terrain in the foreground seem to be relegated to the role of extras, giving prominence to the imposing surrounding buildings. The handful of figures, caught in a variety of poses – standing, lying on rocky outcrops, leaning against the surrounding wall, moving – shows a range of possible reactions to the classical world. 

In addition to the timid use of perspective, the predominance of muted colours, far from the luminous resonance of the artist's more mature works, had led some critics to recognise in the picture a ‘purely Venetian stamp’, characteristic of the painter's early years (D'Achiardi 1912, p. 82; Ozzola 1913). However, there has also been no shortage of attempts to attribute it to his nephew Bernardo Bellotto (Ashby-Constable 1925; Fritzsche 1936; Parker 1948), as well as to a later, not clearly identified, artist (De Rinaldis 1939). The uneven quality of the painting also meant that the name of Canaletto was only posited cautiously, with a degree of uncertainty (Longhi 1928; Constable 1962).

However, the tentative perspective, the colouring without depth and the controlled handling of tonal transitions by means of precise brushstrokes are not sufficient grounds for completely excluding the work from the Canaletto oeuvre. Modern scholars who hesitate to definitively attribute the work to Canaletto (such as Beddington 2006 and Joyeux in La Grande Bellezza 2020) tend to ascribe the painting to the artist's workshop around 1745 (Kozakiewicz 1972, Buberl in Roma Antica 1994) or a little later, at the turn of the 1750s and 1760s (B. A. Kowalczyk in Nolli, Vasi, Piranesi 2005; subsequently, claims are made for attributing the work to Canaletto in Canaletto: Rome, Londres, Venise 2015 and in Canaletto, 1697-1768 2018).

Although the painting has a more sophisticated compositional arrangement than the pendant showing the Colosseum, almost all dates and suggestions for attribution concerning it reflect those of the other artwork purchased with it on the English antiquities market in 1908 from Walter Abraham for 2,500 lire on the recommendation of Ettore Modigliani (Kunstchronik 1909, p. 254). It also appeared for the first time in a magazine in 1912, in the pages of the ‘Bollettino d'arte’ in an article by the then Inspector of the Galleria Borghese, Pietro d'Achiardi (D'Achiardi 1912).

The arrangement of the climbing plants, the shapes of the rocks and the way the figures are posed in the foreground remove any doubt that the painting is based on a drawing currently in the British Museum (no. 226). However, in the drawing, the difference in perspective between the vertical thrust of the Romanesque bell tower and the surrounding architecture is more daring. The drawing was part of a set of twenty-four works on paper executed by the artist probably during his 1719-20 visit to Rome, although later dates have also been mooted (1750, at least for Marshall 2004, p. 54). Repeatedly reused throughout the painter's career, the autograph status of the drawings was recognised in 2001 (Chapman, in Canaletto prima maniera 2001, pp. 43-46) and they are now held in the British and Darmstadt museums. The work featuring the basilica of Maxentius was one of the most successful in the series. The Venetian artist made use of it both for a pen drawing with an impressionistic touch from the 1740s, now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, and for a large upright painting now in a private collection. Joseph Smith also used it for a capriccio around 1720-22, while the Venetian engraver Giovan Battista Brustolon, taking his cue from an album of original drawings donated by Canaletto's heirs on his death, included it in his Vedute di Roma series, started in 1770.

The recovery around 1754-55 of an early drawing from the 1720s, when Canaletto was in London, attests to the revival of timeless Roman subjects in English collecting circles in the years of the Grand Tour, fully in keeping with the practice of Vedutism based on recollections.

Chiara Pazzaglia

  • Sammlungen, in Kunstchronik: Wochenschrift für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe, Neue Folge, n. 20, 1909, p. 254.
  • P. D'Achiardi, Nuovi acquisti della R. Galleria Borghese, in Bollettino d'Arte, anno 6, fasc. 3 (31 marzo 1912), pp. 81-82; tav. II, p. 84.
  • L. Ozzola, Le rovine romane nella pittura del XVII e XVIII secolo, in L'Arte, anno XVI, n. 2, 1913, p. 128; fig. 25, p. 121.
  • R. Strinati, La Galleria Borghese di Roma, in Emporium, vol. LX, n. 358, ottobre 1924, p. 604; fig. p. 602.
  • T. Ashby, W. G. Constable, Canaletto and Bellotto in Rome – 1, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 46, n. 266, May 1925, p. 213; tav. 212 G.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane: 1. R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 225.
  • H. A. Fritzsche, Bernardo Bellotto, genannt Canaletto, Burg bei Magdeburg 1936, p. 105; fig. 49.
  • H. Voss, [Recensione del libro di H. A Fritzsche, Bernardo Bellotto, genannt Canaletto], in Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, annata 199, n. 5, 1937, p. 196.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1939, pp. 30, 61.
  • K. T. Parker, The drawings of Antonio Canaletto, London 1948, p. 51.
  • A. Morassi, Settecento veneziano inedito (II), in Arte Veneta, 1950 (n. 4), p. 47.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Milano 1955, p. 109, n. 195.
  • W. G. Constable, Canaletto. Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768, Oxford 1962, I, n. 380; II, p. 360.
  • L. Puppi, L'opera completa del Canaletto, Milano 1968, p. 109, n. 217b.
  • S. Kozakiewicz, Bernardo Bellotto, II, Milano 1972, p. 463; fig. 323 p. 466.
  • W. G. Constable, Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768, Oxford 1989, I, tav. 70, II, pp. 387-388.
  • Roma Antica. Römische Ruinen in der italienischen Kunst des 18. Jahrhunderts, catalogo della mostra (Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte der Stadt Dortmund, 1994), a cura di B. Buberl, München 1994, pp. 177-178.
  • J. Garms, Vedute di Roma. Dal Medioevo all’Ottocento, Napoli 1995, I, p. 83, fig. 77.
  • Peintres de Venise. De Titien à Canaletto dans les collections italiennes, catalogo della mostra (Lodève, Musée de Lodève, Hôtel du Cardinal de Fleury, 2000), a cura di M. Vallès – Bled, Milano 2000.
  • Pintura Veneciana de Tiziano a Longhi, catalogo della mostra (Città del Messico, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, 2002), Città del Messico, 2002.
  • D. Marshall, Canaletto & Carlevarijs, Panini & Piranesi: The Paradoxes of the Serial Veduta, in The Italians in Australia. Studies in Renaissance and Baroque art, a cura di D. Marshall, Melbourne and Florence, 2004, pp. 49-66.
  • B. A. Kowalczyck in Canaletto, il trionfo della veduta, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Giustiniani, 2005), a cura di A. Bettagno, B. A. Kowalczyk, Cinisello Balsamo 2005, p. 252.
  • Canaletto in England: a Venetian artist abroad, 1746-1765, catalogo della mostra (New Haven-Londra, 2006-2007), a cura di C. Beddington, London-New Haven 2006, p. 154.
  • Canaletto: Rome, Londres, Venise: le triomphe de la lumière, catalogo della mostra (Aix-en-Provence, Hotel de Caumont, 2015), a cura di B. A. Kowalczyk, Bruxelles 2015, pp. 178-179.
  • B. A. Kowalczyk, scheda in Canaletto, 1697-1768, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo di Roma - Palazzo Braschi, 2018), a cura di B. A. Kowalczyk, Cinisello Balsamo 2018, pp. 150-151, n. 39.
  • F. Salatin, Tra memoria pagana e mito cristiano: la Basilica di Massenzio, in Revue Archéologique, n. 65, 2018, pp. 91-108.
  • N. Joyeux, scheda in La Grande Bellezza: L'Art à Rome au XVIIIe siecle, 1700-1758, catalogo della mostra (Ajaccio, Palais Fesch, 2020), a cura di A. Bacchi, L. Barroero, P. Costamagna, A. Zanella, Milano 2020, pp. 111-112, n. 14b.