The spectacularly beautiful scenery of Lake Nemi, near Rome, enthralled the ancients. Virgil and Ovid wrote of it, and Roman emperors erected villas along its shores. Caligula even built floating barges from which to enjoy the three-mile (4.8-kilometer) circumference of the nearly perfectly...
The spectacularly beautiful scenery of Lake Nemi, near Rome, enthralled the ancients. Virgil and Ovid wrote of it, and Roman emperors erected villas along its shores. Caligula even built floating barges from which to enjoy the three-mile (4.8-kilometer) circumference of the nearly perfectly circular lake. One thousand feet (305 meters) above sea level, the body of water rests so deep within the surrounding walls of a volcanic crater that hardly a breeze ripples its surface. Hence the lake was known in antiquity as Diana’s mirror, an allusion to the temple of Diana that stood on Nemi’s rim. Many European artists traveled to Lake Nemi, including Gaspard Dughet, Claude Lorrain, and J. M. W. Turner. By the early nineteenth century, American painters were also visiting there, most notably Thomas Cole. American landscape painter George Inness visited Lake Nemi while living abroad from 1850 to 1852. He returned to the region in 1872; that same year, Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Williams of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who were enjoying their own sojourn in Italy, bought this view of Nemi, which the artist described to them as “one of my very best.” Inness likely painted his scene from the grounds of the Capuchin monastery (which still survived in the nineteenth century) at Genzano, overlooking the lake, creating an ethereal view of the mythical world of Arcadia. Unlike earlier artists who depicted Diana’s temple, Inness eschewed architectural details in favor of hazy atmosphere and panoramic vistas. The black garb of the man with his back to the viewer suggests he is a Catholic priest; priests were known to walk the path around the lake, following the route of their pagan predecessors who had worshiped at Diana’s temple. By including the solitary figure, a common motif in earlier American landscape paintings, Inness invites the spectator to enter this seemingly oneiric world. Inness alludes to the timeless splendor of the ancient world, yet in traditional descriptions of Arcadia, the specter of death is omnipresent amidst the beauty of life. Inness conveys a sense of longing for the past, but the past at Lake Nemi was associated with a bizarre and ruthless ritual: historically, a murderous chase through the sacred grove surrounding Lake Nemi determined the next reigning priest of Diana’s temple. Inness strove to find a balance between the reality of the scene he wanted to depict, its history, and idealized nature. In Lake Nemi he achieves both a convincing scene of this well-known site and also a luminous vision that seems capable of vanishing like a dream. Inness depicted Lake Nemi in at least nine paintings, including another work [21.290] in the Museum’s collection, which he made during a subsequent visit to the area in about 1874. Notes 1. George Inness to Mr. A.D. Williams, August 13, 1872, Archives, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Lower right: Inness Rome 1872
1872, commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Aaron D. (1825-1899) and Susan F. Williams, Roxbury, Mass.; after 1899, sold by Susan F. Williams to Clara L. Hersey (b. 1856) and her sister, Ada H. Hersey (1859-1954) as a gift for their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Hersey (1831-1916), Roxbury; after 1916, by descent to Miss Ada H. Hersey, Roxbury; 1949, gift of the Misses Hersey to the MFA. (Accession date: May 12, 1949)
Gift of the Misses Hersey