Naples, March 1781

Richard Stephens

In this section:

Naples Series, March 1781   FT230, FT231, FT232, FT233, FT234, FT236, FT237, FT238, FT239, FT240, FT241, FT242, FT244, FT245


Naples subjects in other sections:

Studio Watercolours, 1783-1800   FT395, FT416, FT422, FT432, FT451, FT558, FT586

Lost   FT243, FT394

Pupils and Copyists   FT814, FT815, FT816, FT816a, FT817


In March 1781 Towne visited Naples. Where Rome was a campus, an open museum of ancient ruins whose modern settlement occupied only a fraction of the ancient city, Naples was a crowded city of 350,000 inhabitants, the home of the Bourbon court, and a major centre of culture and tourism. Views of city life and of eruptions of Vesuvius, which dominated the city, were popular subjects for artists like Pietro Fabris (fl.1756–84), whose Neapolitan views exhibited in London in the 1760s and 1770s, together with the twenty-four aquatints of his views published by Paul Sandby between 1777 and 1782, helped to define the area’s appeal for visiting artists. Beyond the city itself the countryside of Naples was rich in classical associations and new archeological finds. Pompeii was identified in 1763 and excavations at Herculaneum began in 1738. The area of the Phlegraean Fields west of the city included the supposed site of Virgil’s tomb at Posillipo, the ancient resort of Baia, Lake Avernus, where Aeneas descended to Hell, and Cuma, home of the Sibyl. Thomas Gray, writing to his mother in 1740, called Naples “the most beautiful part of the finest country in the world; and every spot of it, on some account or other, famous for these three thousand years past”.

Towne’s time in Naples is illuminated by the account of fellow artist Thomas Jones, who acted as Towne’s guide and who recorded the visit in his Memoirs. Jones describes Towne’s arrival in Naples thus:

1781 March 8th. Towne the Landscape painter arrived from Rome, bringing me Letters from my friends at that place – I was glad to see him, as any person, particularly in my Situation, must be, to see an old Acquaintance, and as his stay in Naples was not proposed to be long, I gladly offered my Services to be his Cicerone, and revisit with him all the Curiosities of Art and Nature in, and about this delightful City – a Circumstance rather favourable to Mr Towne, in his Profession, as I was able to conduct him to many picturesque Scenes of my Own discovery, entirely out of the common road of occasional Visiters [sic], either Cavaliers or Artists, from Rome.1

The brevity of Towne’s stay in Naples—weeks not months—meant that he would not realistically have intended to pick up commissions from visiting English milords. Such a plan would have taken time and involve setting up a studio full of examples of completed pictures and cultivating society figures in order to generate sales leads. Even so, Towne went to pay his respects to the official British representative, the envoy and antiquarian Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), a meeting that was probably due to Thomas Jones’s own repeated attempts to secure Hamilton’s patronage. In going to Naples, Towne was rather investing in his future career back in England, by making sketches on which to base commissions, and by studying a landscape rich in artistic antecedents. The importance of Naples among the English art-buying public is clear not only from the commissions Towne received, but also from his decision to include the place name in the advertisements for his 1805 exhibition, despite featuring only four Naples views (of a total of 191 exhibits); clearly Towne believed it would attract visitors. The fourteen of Towne’s Naples drawings that survive today are probably only a small proportion of the drawings Towne would have made in such a rich and promising environment; indeed, judging from surviving commissions, Naples views were the most popular Towne made abroad (FT394, FT395, FT414, FT422, FT432, FT451, FT558, FT586).

Although Jones characterised Towne’s visit as brief, it seems to have been of a fairly standard duration for the English based in Rome. For example, James Northcote visited in April 1779 with a large party including Maria Hadfield, Thomas Banks, Prince Hoare, Henry Tresham, Alexander Day “and others. After tarrying about a month and seeing whatever was curious in that country, I returned again to Rome.”2 Because Towne’s first-numbered Naples drawing (FT230) is dated 17 March, Wilcox suggested 

the possibility that Jones, making the entry retrospectively, misremembered the date, or that it was later mistranscribed. If Towne’s arrival in Naples was nearer in date to the day he made his first numbered drawing, that is, 17 March, his stay in the area could have lasted only a little over two weeks.3

Certainly Jones’s account book shows that he regularly accompanied Towne on excursions only from 16 March onwards.4

The usual method of travel from Rome to Naples was by Procaccio (stage coach). “To those who w’d not wish to be hurried thro’ an interesting Country & can put up with the Accomodations of Italian Inns, it is a pleasant method of Travelling,” wrote Thomas Jones, who himself spent three and a half days making his way to Naples by Procaccio in September 1778.5 Towne probably made a similar leisurely progress towards Naples, stopping along the way at Sessa Aurunca (FT229), a city about fifty miles north of Naples on the same route from Rome that Jones had followed. Towne was still working in Rome on 3 March (FT201), and if he set off from Rome a day or two later, he could have reached Naples by 8 March, when Jones records Towne’s arrival. Jones also recorded Towne’s departure from Naples back to Rome “by the courier” on 3 April 1781. If an inscription on a letter sent to Towne in Rome is to be believed, he arrived back in Rome that same day.6 The speedy courier would have allowed no pauses to sketch the passing landscape, adding to the likelihood that Towne sketched Tessa Aurunca during his outbound journey from Rome, not on his way back up.

Around the time of Towne’s arrival, he had been expressing unhappiness with his situation in Italy, complaining to James White of language difficulties among other inconveniences.6 Indeed, judging by James White’s soothing replies, Towne had even considered an early return to England. So pressing were the issues it addressed that perhaps Towne was alerted to the receipt of White’s letter at the Café des Anglais and raced back to Rome on 3 April specifically to read it. Around this time Jones, too, was feeling unhappy and isolated, having been shunned by the friends and contacts he had made during an earlier stay in Naples and lacking the stimulation that the company of fellow artists brought. He described feeling “quite disconsolate” when Pars departed from Naples in November 1780.8 Towne and Jones were fellow members of the community of English-speaking artists in Italy, old London acquaintances, and mutual friends of Pars and “Warwick” Smith. The two may have met in the early 1760s as St Martin’s Lane students or as jobbing artists shortly thereafter. Alternatively, they would surely have met in 1770 when Towne became a Fellow of the Society of Artists, as Jones was by that time already a Fellow and a regular attender of the Society’s business meetings. Towne and Jones had, therefore, many good reasons besides their private circumstances to seek one another’s company. It is impossible, of course, to say how the mood of either artist might have affected their artistic production during this period, if at all; but if it did, its consequence was most probably a desire in Jones to expose Towne to the Naples of his own discovery, away from the city and the art market by which he was so disaffected. 

What is known of Towne’s habits and movements day-to-day during his time in Naples is taken from the drawings themselves and from Jones’s memoir and account book. Towne seems not to have lodged with Jones, as a few weeks after Towne’s visit Jones described a “little bed which we had fitted up for Pars”, implying that previously there had been no such spare lodging.9 Even so, Jones took his duties as cicerone seriously and he and Towne seem to have spent most of their days together, and longer periods when the two were making overnight excursions, the longest of which was to Pompeii. On 16 March Jones took Towne to an inn, and spent the next day with him. The two visited Portici (FT232) on 18 March and were together on 19 March. The day after they visited Baia (FT239) and Pozzuoli (FT235), possibly staying overnight to 21 March. On 22 March they went to Torre Annunziata, a town near Vesuvius, and to Posillipo on 24 March (FT231, FT236). The following week Towne spent without Jones, who took him on 31 March to his favoured spot at Santa Maria a Monte (FT242, FT243). A final meeting on 2 April was perhaps Towne’s send-off before he set off for Rome the following day. Jones’s long residence in Naples and his friendship with visitors of many nationalities helped to shape the experience of Naples not only for Towne but for the circle of British artists that included William Pars and John “Warwick” Smith. Depictions of Posillipo by Towne, Jones, Smith, and Pars all share the same compositional approach (figs.231a–c), as do the views of Vesuvius by Towne, Smith, and Pars (figs.232a and b). Similiarities are also evident in FT230, FT239, and FT242

As well as the natural sights, Jones showed Towne “all the Curiosities of Art” in and around Naples. Beyond the ancient ruins already noted, and doubtless visits to the Bourbon collection at the new royal palace at Capodimonte, this probably also included a visit on 31 March to the convent of S. Eframo Vecchio, whose altarpiece was painted by by Jacopo Cestaro (1718–1778). A visitor in 1784 described the new palace at Capodimonte: 

No beauty about the architecture; within is a labyrinth of quite unfinished rooms, of which the bare walls are covered with innumerable pictures, some good, some bad, and many indifferent, all without frames, placed without order . . . [also a collection of] medals, some fine cameos and intaglios, and the famous Agate Cup, with the Medusa’s head on one side and figures on the other. . . . There is likewise a large collection of drawings.10

Jones records two lengthy anecdotes of excursions with Towne, which reveal something of Towne’s delicate disposition:

In one of our Excursions, we met with an Adventure, which as it seemed likely to have proved fatal to one if not both of us, I can not help relating –

It was Tuesday Ye 20th of March We were on the Coast of Baja making Sketches of the Two Antique Temples there, and going into a little Wine house to refresh, took out of our pockets our cold fowl and ordered a flask of Wine – This house or rather Hovel served as a place of Rendezvous for the idle Soldiers of the adjoining Garrison (The Castle at Baja has always a considerable Garrison it was built either to prevent, or in consequence of the incursions of the famous Pirate Barbarossa) – to drink and gamble at – As we were just beginning our little repast, Two gigantic Troopers entered and sat down for some time without saying a word, but casting a scowling Eye alternately on us, and at one another – at length calling for a flask of wine, which was brought them, they bagan to rave at the Landlady for not bringing “Gentlemen Soldiers a drinking-glass – as well as those foreigners”, pointing to us – The old Woman told them that she had but one in the house – Upon which the leading man of the two seized our tumbler and put it on their Side of the Table – I was imprudent enough to take the glass, and without ceremony put it back again – Upon which the Savage got up, and seizing me by the Throat with one hand, thrust me up against the Wall, and with the Other, drawing his broadSword, and holding the point of it at my gullet – “Scoundrel, says he, Dost thou know what it is to affront a Solders? (Birbone che sei, sai tu che cosa sia d’affrontare un Signore Soldato?)” – Towne was almost frightened to death – The old woman screamed and beg’d of them for the holy Virgin’s sake not to kill the poor foreigners – that we had been often at her house and had behaved always very honourably both to her and to the Gentlemen Soldiers – for my part, I could neither speak or move, being almost throttled by the fellow’s gripe, which is the only reason I can give for my insensibility at the moment, to the imminent Danger I was in, the bare remembrance of which afterward made me Shudder – The tumbler glass however was immediately given up, and the fellow letting go his hold, and muttering a few execrations, returned his Sword to the Scabbard again –

Not much relishing such Company we paid for our Wine and collecting our fragments as well as our dissipated Spirits would permit us, quitted the house, and returned, not without apprehensions of being pursued, with all the speed in our power to Puzzuoli – where we thought we could finish our Meal in safety – Upon Reflexion – the behaviour of the Troopers must be attributed to their disappointment in not meeting with the same regalement we had bestowed on two or three Albanese Soldiers of the same Garrison a few Days before – In excursions of this sort, the longest of which was to Pompaeij, we were engaged till APRILL 3d When Towne set off by the courier for Rome.11

The second incident took place as Jones and Towne were walking in the road to Santa Maria a Monte:

In this hollow Way is a most beautiful Series of picturesque Objects, which I discovered by Accident in one of my perambulations – Here may visibly be traced the Scenery that Salvator Rosa formed himself upon – Only taking away the Pinetrees, which were, perhaps, planted since his time, and which indicate a State of Cultivation not suited to his gloomy mind, with the addition of Water & a few Banditti – And every hundred yards presents you with a new and perfect Composition of that Master – When Towne was in Naples, I took him with me to see this romantick place, with which he seemed much delighted – but the following whimsical Incident puyt a stop to further explorations at that time and which I forgot to mention in its proper place – Proceeding up the valley whose boundaries contracted more and more as we advanced, increasing in proportion to the Gloominess of the Scene; We arrived at a Spot, which might very properly have been termed the Land of Darkness & the Shadow of Death – This sequestered place was environed on all Sides, with hanging Rocks here and there protruding themselves from behind dark masses of a variety of wild Shrubs, and overshadowed by branching Trees – Here, says I, Mr Towne, is Salvator Rosa in perfection, we only want Banditti to compleat the Picture – I had scarcely uttered the words, when turning round a Projection of the Rocks, we all-at once pop’d upon three ugly-looking fellows dressed in the fantastic garb of the Sbirri di Campagna, with long knives, cutting up a dead jackAss – 

To have some tollerable Idea of the exteriour Appearance of this Class of men, which, except in the Article of Military accoutrements, is not very different from the Neapolitan Lazzaroni – You must imagine a figure dressed as follows – Imprimis – an immense large three cock’d hat, trim’d with a broad scollop’d Silver or gold Lace – A Silk net, black, green or party coloured, tied behind the Ears and hanging in a bag on the Shoulders, from whence three or four Tassels dangle on the back – Gold, Silver or brass Ear rings – A short crooked pipe stuck in the Mouth – A large Silk handerchief tyed loosely round the Neck – A short Jacket, perhaps of Velvet, with slashed Sleeves, – under that A Short waistcoat without flaps, with two or three rows of small round Silver buttons slung upon Laces, as thick as they can possibly tie & hanging in festoons – with a Silk Sash twisted round the Waist in which are stuck the pistols and dagger – A pair of large blue, red, or black shag or velvet Breeches and blue or red stockens, gartered beneath the knees with bows, or rolled up as was formerly the Custom in England – Lastly a pair of longquartered Shoes, with enormous Buckles of Solid Silver stuck over the Toes – To these add a Musket or Carbine and you have a general Idea of the Character – The Police in England and Italy, being so different, We have no office analagous, and consequently no Correspondent term – but they Act in the different Capacities of Constable, cathpolls and Thieftakers – Being likewise a kind of Military Character they serve to patrol the Streets and Highways and protect passengers and travellers from Pickpockets and Robbers – but to proceed –

Towne started back as if struck by an electric Shock, strongly impressed, I suppose, with our late adventure on the Coast of Baja – “I’ll go no farther” says he, with a most solemn face, adding with a forced smile, that however he might admire such Scenes in a Picture – he did not relish them in Nature, – So we wheeled about and returned to the more cultivated environs of the City – I have many a time since that Period, taken a Solitary walk up this romantick Dingle, and seen the bleached and scattered Bones of the poor animal, but I thank God, never met with Robbers or assassins there or anywhere else in the Country.12 

The locations of such incidents are characteristic of the quieter rural settings that Jones favoured, keeping in the main out of the way of Naples city itself, and these preferences are reflected in the views that Towne brought back from his visit, generally ignoring Naples and concentrating instead on its outskirts, and on hillsides, scenes, and buildings beyond the city. The individuality of Towne’s itinerary Jones described proudly as “picturesque Scenes of my Own discovery, entirely out of the common road of occasional Visiters”. Having dinner with Joseph Farington in London twenty years later, Jones related that an enduring memory of his Italian travels was Santa Maria a Monte, just such a discovery (FT242).

As the Santa Maria a Monte incident makes clear, Jones’s and Towne’s experience of the Neapolitan countryside was suffused with the presence of Salvator Rosa, the key exponent of seventeenth-century sublime landscape, whose desolate views were supposed by his English admirers to have been drawn from his own experiences with Neapolitan brigands. Fascination surrounding Rosa’s life story was such that Pars and Jones, among others, were thrilled to lodge in Rosa’s old house in Rome, where “the Walls of all the rooms were covered with Landscapes painted in Water Colour by old Salvator’s pupils”.13 Jones took both Pars and Towne to the place where “may visibly be traced the Scenery that Salvator Rosa formed himself upon”. Indeed it was the landscape’s associations with Rosa’s “abrupt and rugged forms”14 and “savage & uncouth places”,15 full of rocky crags, narrow ravines, and gnarled tree stumps, that gave value and potency to many of the excursions in the Neapolitan countryside. In several works it is clear that Towne was considering Rosa’s model when making his sketch. He introduced dead trees into certain drawings (FT234, FT237, FT238, FT242) and there are also examples of the narrow ravine format (FT236, FT242). 

Jones’s disaffection and the Rosa connection both supply contexts for rambles off the beaten tourist track, but Towne’s and Jones’s explorations of the landscape away from the city of Naples can also be placed within a long term shift in the way Naples was depicted. This phenomenon saw the city centre and harbourside viewpoints of the seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries very gradually replaced by views taken outside the city, usually looking down across the entire Bay of Naples from hillside positions at Capodimonte or Posillipo, as the archetypal Neapolitan views most sought after by foreign visitors.16 The beauty of the Bay of Naples was praised by Richard Payne Knight in 1777:

As soon as one is out of the Port of Naples, the most magnificent scene opens itself on every side. The city rising gradually from the shore, Mount Vesuvius smoking on one side, with Sorrento, Capri, Ischia, and Procida extending round the Capi Miseno in the form of an amphitheatre, enriched with Palaces, Gardens, Woods and Ruins, are such an assemblage of objects, as are nowhere close to be seen.

Five of Towne’s Italian commissions with dates from 1784 to 1796 (FT414, FT422, FT451, FT558, FT586) were views of this emerging type, which by the early 1800s had become the standard tourist view of the Scuola di Posillipo (a school of painting near Naples).

About the author

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  1. 1 Jones 1951, pp.101–2.
  2. 2 Northcote 1898, p.164.
  3. 3 Wilcox 1997, p.70.
  4. 4 Jones 2003.
  5. 5 Jones 1951, p.76.
  6. 6 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 12 March 1781.
  7. 7 Letter from James White to Francis Towne, 12 March 1781.
  8. 8 Jones 1951, p.100.
  9. 9 Jones 1951, p.106.
  10. 10 Berry 1865, vol.1, p.77.
  11. 11 Jones 1951, pp.102–3.
  12. 12 Jones 1951, pp.104–5.
  13. 13 Jones 1951, p.87.
  14. 14 Price 1794.
  15. 15 Thomas Gray, quoted in Reynolds 1798, vol.3, p.320.
  16. 16 See Wilton and Bignamini 1996, pp.144, 168.


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

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