~ there once was in Rome... ~

Vanished Rome
by Ettore Roesler Franz

(skip the introduction notes)


The gallery is based on the watercolours by one of the most prolific Roman artists, who by the end of the 1800s, between 1878 and the early 1900s painted a remarkable number of Rome and its surroundings, in particular Tivoli.

During those years, shortly after the fall of the Papal State, when Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, the look of the city was abruptly undergoing deep and rapid changes, to face the population explosion, but also the increased vehicle traffic, and to implement safety measures against the river floods, which occurred with alarming frequency.

However, for the improvements on the level of rationality Rome payed a rather high cost in terms of history, art and aesthetics, as quite a few streets and squares vanished under the blows of the pickaxe, and together with them, also several historical buildings and other relics of the past went forever lost.

The purpose of this gallery is to point out how much the sites painted by Roesler Franz have changed, by means of a direct comparison between the artist's watercolours and photographs taken in recent years on the same spot and in the same hours of the day. For some subjects the difference is so big that the original view is barely recognisable only by some minor detail in the background. For instance, from the quay where in 1883 Roesler Franz painted the so-called Temple of Vesta and the output of the Cloaca Maxima (left), today only the span and the pillars of the modern Palatine Bridge, built in 1890, would be visible. Every effort has been made to localise the very spot from where the artist painted the views; in a few cases, though, the photographs had to be taken from the closest possible spot, because the height of the ground level is no longer the original one, or because a house or some other more recent building now hides the subject of the painting, or because the site is no longer freely accessible, or even because the painter deliberately altered the view for artistic purposes.


Ettore Roesler Franz was born in 1845, to a wealthy family of Swiss or German origin (the nationality is a matter of debate), who had moved to Rome during the early years of the century.
Maybe inspired by his cousing Giuseppe, a very precocious watercolour painter who died at the untimely age of thirteen, also Ettore (who by that time was six) later became interested in this technique; before turning a professional painter, though, for some time he found himself a job more in line with the bourgeoise social class he belonged to, working in his uncles' bank. His brother Alessandro was vice-consul of Great Britain in Rome; therefore, it should not surprise how Ettore built up a strong friendship with consul Joseph Severn, who was a talented painter, as well.

Roesler Franz with a young pupil, in the early years of the 1900s →

Palazzo delle Esposizioni
In 1875 Roesler Franz quit his job in the bank and founded the Society of Roman Watercolour Painters (together with Onorato Carlandi, Pio Joris and Cesare Biseo), becoming its chairman several times.
His first collection of typical views, mostly dedicated to the Tiber, dates back to the years between 1877 and 1883, when a series of forty subjects was held on display for the opening of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (Exhibition Palace), arousing keen interest by the public, but also by the San Luca Academy of Fine Arts, which backed the purchase of the whole set of paintings by Rome's Municipality. During his career, Roesler Franz sold individual works also to many private clients, among whom some rulers of the time, such as queen Margherita of Savoy and tzar Alexander III.

A second series of forty subjects was completed in 1891, and finally a third series of forty was finished by 1897, the year in which the eighty works were displayed to the public holding a second exhibition. Also this time the Municipality purchased the whole lot of paintings, but the transaction took a long time, and was finally settled no sooner than 1908, one year after the artist's death. Several Roman views were also held on display in London, in 1904.
The 120 watercolours are now held by the Museum of Rome; one hundred of them are in Palazzo Braschi*, the historical seat of the museum, and the remaining ones in its branch in piazza Sant'Egidio; one of them, though, went lost in 1966, during an exhibition in Germany, and was never retrieved.
* Presently (April 2014) the collection is not accessibile to the public.

a corner of the no longer extant Jewish district,
Ettore Roesler Franz, c.1885
Roesler Franz painted his views in a very realistic manner, and rich in details. He was, in fact, fond of photography, which he practised successfully, often shooting at his subjects from different angles before painting them. This enabled him to analyse all the architectural details, but also to capture scenes of everyday life, with which he used to liven up his views, sometimes in curious ways, such as the detail shown below.
He had foreseen the need to leave a memory of the city as it was before the alterations. Some notes by him were found, in which he marked the subjects that were already no longer extant (either partly or as a whole), and the ones that soon would meet the same fate.
the artist's signature, partly
hidden by a pair of old boots
In a further handwritten note, he expressed his wish that his watercolours should be displayed in a large hall, together with an old city plan of Rome, so to help the future generations understand where the different subjects were once located. So in the following pages also details of maps of the 18th-19th centuries are shown, featuring the relevant area of each painting.

After almost one century and a half, the works by Roesler Franz, but also his many photographs, represent an extraordinary body of work, both artistic and documentary, which almost as a time machine brings back to life the most charming sites of vanished Rome, an expression with which the series of his 120 watercolours is commonly labelled, although the painter used to refer to them as picturesque Rome.

click on the small paintings to access the relevant page


Via Giulio Romano


Borgo Angelico


St.Paul's Gate


the Tiber Island and Caestius Bridge


Via del Portico d'Ottavia


Frangipane Tower


the Tiber Island and Fabricius Bridge


Margana Tower




the Tolomei arch

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