More about Caligula’s Palace and Bridge

Sr. Contributor

Ever the lover of drama, Joseph Mallord William Turner does the infamous Roman emperor Caligula a fair amount of justice, even in the ruins of his once-grand palace.

When art historians call Turner a Romantic, they don’t mean that he knew to show up to a date with some chocolates and a bouquet of flowers. Romantic with a capital “R” refers to Romanticism, a movement that overtook nineteenth-century British art as a reaction to the dreadfully dull rationality of the Enlightenment. Turner’s brand of Romanticism is so recognizable that one of his early paintings, which deviates from his more developed style, was labeled a forgery for over a century.

For Turner, landscape painting was the ultimate art form. Like Frederic Edwin Church and the Hudson River School of artists, landscapes were just a medium for a larger message embedded within each painting. Turner’s painting recalls Caligula’s past glories and ultimate follies. Caligula, formally known as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, was the fourth of the twelve Caesars of ancient Rome. Although Caligula only ruled for four years, he had a dramatic reign with a violent end. History remembers Caligula as a selfish and inept emperor whose lavish tastes and failures contributed to the Roman Empire’s downfall.

Turner features one of Caligula’s most questionable ventures. The lore surrounding Caligula describes a three-mile bridge that the emperor ordered to be built to connect the ancient Roman towns of Puteoli and Baiae. As an added flex, Caligula was said to have crossed his own bridge on horseback. According to legend, the bridge was constructed from boats that were fastened together. The bridge was largely considered pointless and, so, is a good example of Caligula’s frivolity. Turner used the infamous palace and bridge to illustrate the decay of past glories. Sadly, there is no evidence to prove the existence of the fabled, useless bridge, and modern historians have ultimately dismissed it as a myth. However, Caligula definitely lived a lavish life, complete with multiple pleasure barges that sailed Lake Nemi.

The drama doesn’t end with this work’s subject matter. Turner exhibited this painting in the 1831 Royal Academy, where it hung next to John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, one of the many companion pieces to his Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden. This happened to be the same year that Constable served on the exhibition’s Hanging Committee, which gave him privileged access to the exhibition. In a fit of spite, Constable replaced Turner’s painting with his own. However, Turner got the last laugh when he publicly teased Constable about this incident in front of other artists; much to Constable’s chagrin, everyone laughed along with Turner’s joke at Constable’s expense.