Alexander Creswell

July Painting of the Month: ‘Porta Maggiore, Rome’

'Porta Maggiore, Rome' 40" x 60" © Alexander Creswell

A trip to Rome is, for the artist – well, this artist at any rate – a necessary ingredient in artistic good health; like regular tooth-brushing, it helps prevent the onset of decay, of the eyes, the brain and the soul.

It had been some years since my last visit to Rome so in June I took the family for a week, a trip to revisit old architectural friends for us and to introduce our children to the origins of our culture and architecture. On arrival, our first point of pilgrimage was to the Pantheon, that perversely simple and geometrically charged temple to whichever deity you revere. Ours rewarded us immediately with a surprise treat as, while gazing upwards into the dome, we physically bumped into our great friends from New York, Richard & Alexa Cameron, also gazing upwards in awe! This serendipity set the tone for our peregrinations over the week together, around the Eternal City, to Hadrian’s Villa and Tivoli with the Camerons, then north to Villa Lante, Bomarzo and Caprarola on our own.

Sketchbooks in hand, this tour spawned a fresh series of large scale watercolours of my core subject – the ghosts of great architecture. This image is the first painting I have completed since my return. On Richard Cameron’s suggestion we had driven out of Rome by way of the Porta Maggiore. Hidden in a scruffy area on the wrong side of the tracks, this Roman gate surprises the visitor firstly with its location in a busy intersection of streets confused by tram tracks, both twisting through the site, weaving their way in and out of the old walls like snakes through the eye sockets of a skull! The second, more pleasing surprise is that the site is completely un-manicured like so much of the rest of the relics of ancient Rome, with grass and wild flowers cushioning the old arch in a gentle reminder of arcadia.

The purpose of the arch was to carry the Aqua Claudia over the via Cassia and via Prenestina on its way to the Palatine Hill. Emperor Claudius’ name appears frequently in the pattern of inscribed lettering on its tall attic. The arch was later embellished as part of the Aurelian walls, sections of which survive around the neighbourhood.

Its attraction for me was the delicate monumentality in a dark setting, crumbling stone tickled by morning sunlight, a fragment of carved cornice lying in the long grass and the reflected light under the arches. It fits well into my continuing theme of the monumental arch, (I had been sketching at the Arches of Constantine, Titus and Septimius Severus again) but here uncluttered by tourists peering over my shoulder and getting in the way. Unlike most of the Roman sites now, the Porta Maggiore is free. This last point had riled me since 2008 when the appearance of turnstiles, queues, barriers and one-way routes had spoiled the Forum. We have been deprived of the freedom to wander and ponder the origins of culture and the sediment of history, from dawn till dusk coming and going at will. Instead we are channelled by scruffy commercialism, and controlled by surly officialdom in ill-fitting uniforms who bark at the artist who is trying to step past the barrier to glimpse some forbidden monument in a particular light or sit on a fragment to continue a sketch. And if you want to return later in the day you have to buy another ticket.

The results of this tour, ticket barriers notwithstanding, will be revealed here as they appear. Enjoy the Porta Maggiore. Other paintings will be shown as work in progress for anyone interested in how they develop, from small drawings to the build-up of washes and detail which constitute a large-scale watercolour. Subjects include the Arch of Constantine, Basilica of Maxentius and Villa Adriana. And of course, The Pantheon. Come back soon.