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Revisiting Roman Rivers- Painting Historic Currents

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

"Castle Sant' Angelo- Tiber in Rome" a 20" x 24" oil on linen- created en plein air in Rome. The placards displaying the works of ancient Roman poets are depicted on the opposite shore.

You can never step into the same river twice, so says the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. Some have come to many new interpretations and inversions of this maxim of impermance and flux. One inversion comes from a Buddhist scholar Malcomb David Eckel, who quipped that we can't even step into the same river once, as in certain Buddhist quarters, it is held that there is no self to do the stepping. When one is in Italy, and standing next to the rivers of the peninsula, especially while painting, these aphorisms and poems of the rivers come to the fore. In Rome for instance, a few years back the mayor had installed a series of large placards displaying the poems of the ancient poets, from Virgil, Cicero, Pliny, Horace, Terrence, and many others to inspire us as we strolled along the Tiber in the Eternal City. There is a painting included here, above and below, both portraying that stretch of the river with those placards of poems visible on the opposite shore.

"River of Poets- Rome" A 36" x 40" oil including a self portrait. St Peter's dome and Hadrian's mausoleum can be seen in the distance.

Above- one of Corot's versions of the Tiber River in Rome- done from same location as the other paintings by Brian Keeler shown here. This small oil of Corot's is in the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA.

Returning to the Tiber during the past 30 years is something to look forward to each time, as it always reveals itself as a source of new inspiration. The history that is attendant with this river is quite remarkable and awe-inspiring. From Maxentius battling Constantine on the Milivian Bridge or Etruscan predecessors to the Jewish history and Christian influx and on up to modern times- it all combines to impress and inspire. The concourse along the Tiber in Rome is a great place to paint as this promenade is usually without pedestrians. For a large metropolis teaming with tourists and residents, the river walks offer areas of relative quiet.

One of the entrees for myself into the rivers of Italy has been through the paintings of Corot, the 19th century French painter. For example his depictions of Rome along the Tiber have become iconic and revered by some painters and art historians. Corot's reserved color and rarefied compositions have often been regarded as presaging the work of modern masters like Cezanne with similar geometric sensibilities. The Ponte Fabricio, the bridge spanning the Tiber in Rome is one such structure that inspired Corot, and as an act of homage, I too have painted this bridge from many angles.

"Ponte Santa Trinita- The Arno with One Kayaker." A small oil on paper done en plein air. It depicts one of the bridges spanning the Arno River in Florence.

Tracking down the motif for Corot's paintings of the ancient Roman bridge, the Ponte Augusto was certainly a high point in this pursuit of Corot. This bridge was portrayed by Corot in two versions in the 1820's, one a small oil plein air study. The other, a full scale oil. Both are memorable and remarkable for different reasons. The study captures the roilly and muddy waters on clear day with virtuoisic economy of brush stroke and simplified composition. The large painting is resolved to beautiful completion full of remarkalbe detail. I was there at the Ponte Augusto, near Narni with a friend, late on a summer afternoon just as the sun was illumination the ancient arches over the river Neara, a tributary of the Tiber.

Other waterways of Rome easily come to mind if we are familiar with history and art. The Adige River in northern Italy in a beautiful valley coming down to the east of Lake Guarda. I've only traveled this once, with friends while motoring around the lake district enroute to Venice. I imagained Durer traversing this same valley in the early 1500's, also on his way to the Venice, The "Serenissima." The Arbia River, or torrente as small streams are called in Italy, is near Sienna and was stopped at one year while traveling through Tuscany. This river is known to readers of Dante as a famous battle occurred there between Florence and Siena- in which the waters were said to have run red with the blood of the fallen. There is even a t-shirt available that says "Remember Monteperti", which is the town were the Arbia battle occurred in 1260.

On a more peaceful note, a curious river near the town of Terni in Umbria was stopped during a trip[ one year when I was there with students. This river features a waterfall that was engineered by the ancient Romans to turn on and off. It still does this today. While we were there the waterfall simply stopped flowing, The Cascata delle Marmore, or cascade is now a hydro-electric facility but dates back to 270 BC when the waters of the river Velino were controlled to make it the highest man-made waterfall in the world.

"Tiber Scullers" A large pastel depicting the Ponte Emanuelle II and Castle Sant Angelo in Rome.

"The die has been cast" comes to mind too as the famous quote from the lips of Julius Cesar and his irrevocable decision to attack his homeland. He supposedly uttered these words after a long reflection and then crossed the Rubicon, a river which marked the boundary of where Roman troops were not allowed to enter bearing arms. Such momentus decisions of men of destiny are all part of the mix in this land - a palimpsest of history in rivers and land.

The Arno in Tuscany almost touches the headwaters of the Tiber where the two water courses begin to wend their separate ways to the Tyrrhenian Sea. I have been at the upper parts of the Arno for extended stays at the little town of Poppi, which claims significance for providing a refuge for Dante Alighieri. Views of the Arno from this town show the river to be just a small stream running through beautiful valleys.

Painting along the Arno in Florence has offered an abundance of inspiration over the years. Sitting along the walls or amongst the reeds on its shores- one can imagain the Ciompi wool workers planning their democratic revolt in the 14th century. Or perhaps witnessing the murder on the Ponte Vecchio that started the centuries long Guelph/Ghibiline divison and conflicts.

"Florence, Last Light" This plein air oil (18" x 24") was painted near the dam just downstream from the Ponte Santa Trinita. The dam is the site of the former area for the city's wool washing in medieval times.

Speaking of the Arno, we cannot fail to mention one of its famous episodes of violent destruction. That being the flood of 1966 when the river ravaged the city and destroyed many priceless works of art and ancient manuscripts. Even today, one can see the high water mark at the top of some of the famous frescoes. A famous Giotto fresco in Santa Croce still bears the effects of mud and silt caused by this deluge. This flooding became noteworthy for the volunteer work of American art history students, who were there at the time and became known as "Mud Angels" for their work in helping to restore and clean up after the flooding. This historical occurence is woven into the novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, By Robert Helena- a story of lost etchings of the Renaissance.

There are some wonderful depictions of the rivers of Italy, among them two huge canvases by George Inness and several by Corot, already mentioned. The George Inness canvases depict the river from a vantage point on a hill near Perugia in Umbria. One canvas is in the NGA in DC the other is in the Clark Institute in Williastown, MA.

Sketching from the George Inness oil painting- depicting the Tiber River at Perugia in Umbria. This painting is in the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA.

"Tiber in Umbria" A plein air oil depicting the Tiber as seen from the small village of Monte Castello di Vibio (near Todi.)

Not to be limited to painting as the soul record of rivers in Italy we can think of filmmakers. We may recall some of Fellini's movies or other Neo-Realist filmmakers of the 1950's. There are some scenes in Fellini's movie, "Eight" at the beginning where a woman is saved from drowning and in another film there's a scene with young boys jumping into the Tiber. The iconic statue in Piazza Navona by Bernini, The Quatro Fiumi is a huge figurative sculptural ensemble that commemorates the four major world rivers. And of course the remakable fountains, and aqueducts that brought fresh water into ancient Rome and still do today- these are truly amazing feats of engineering for the salubrious benefit of everyone. On a hot day those fountains offer the weary traveler the healing and cool waters of Appenine freshness.

"Ponte Fabricio Nocturne- Rome" Oil on linen 22" x 24" created en plein air.

To view a short video of a plein air painting in Rome along the Tiber River click on this link;

Above- A painting by the French Painter Corot was created en plein air around 1825, It depicts the Tiber Island, and Ponte Fabricio on the right. It was done from near the same location as Keeler's painting shown above.

"Tiber Morning- Rome" This 24" x 26" oil on linen was created en plein air. View the video of this work on location at the link above. The original is available at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY,

Above- A 9" x 12" pencil sketch of the view of the Tiber.

Some of the paintings shown here and others of Italy are available at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY. Visit to view these Italian works or go to Set up an appointment for a gallery visit.

Above- Painting a plein air oil from one of the abutments on Ponte Santa Trinita in Florence on a January afternoon several years ago.

"Light on the Tiber- June Evening Etude" Oil on linen on panel. This large-scale painting, 24" x 48" was begun as a demonstration at an art gallery in Pittsford, NY.

To see a video of the above painting at the end of the first session- check out this link:

NOTE: These paintings and others of Italy are in a show at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY from June 1 to July 31, 2023.

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