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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Jan Asselijn/The Tiber River with the Ponte Molle at Sunset/c. 1650,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/159836 (accessed August 14, 2020).

 

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Overview

The Ponte Molle, also known as the Milvian Bridge, spans the Tiber River just north of Rome. The bridge’s picturesque character appealed to many 17th-century artists, including Jan Asselijn. Its charming structure evoked the quiet beauty of the Roman countryside, and its painterly effects were enhanced by the rhythmic shadows on its arches and the golden light across the sky. In The Tiber River with the Ponte Molle at Sunset, shepherds and travelers along the river’s bank enliven the lower reaches of the composition, and a well-dressed gentleman at right gestures to a boatman whose small cargo vessel drifts through an arch. The vivid accents of light falling on these figures emphasize their subtle but important presence in the scene.

Asselijn received his artistic training in Amsterdam, after which he traveled to Rome to live with a group of Dutch and Flemish artists called the Bentvueghels (brotherhood of artists). They focused their attention on scenes of everyday life as well as views of the Roman countryside. Asselijn fused these two pictorial realms by depicting ordinary people near Roman buildings, bridges, and ancient ruins. He freely adapted architecture and topography to enhance his pictorial and atmospheric effects. Here he gave the bridge a round tower at its northern end instead of the large, pier-like structure that actually stands there.

Entry

Jan Asselijn’s radiant painting depicts a quiet late afternoon scene unfolding along the Tiber River near the Ponte Molle, also known as the Milvian Bridge. Forming part of the Via Flaminia, which linked Rome to Florence, this bridge spanned the river just north of the Eternal City and was its principal access from the north.[1] The Milvian Bridge gained great fame as the site of Constantine the Great’s decisive battle against Maxentius in 312 CE, after which Constantine converted to Christianity.[2] For Asselijn, however, this historic event was of less significance than the bridge’s picturesque character and the way it evoked the quiet beauty of the countryside in the Tiber River valley. A herder driving his cattle through the water and two horsemen, who have stopped to converse along the river’s bank, activate the painting’s foreground, their importance to the scene evident in the vivid accents of light falling on their bodies. At right, a well-dressed gentleman gestures to a boatman, whose small cargo vessel drifts along the current as it passes through one of the bridge’s arches. From atop the Ponte Molle, two figures observe the activity below.

Jan Asselijn, a major figure in the Dutch Italianate tradition, traveled from Amsterdam to Rome in the mid-1630s to join a group of Dutch and Flemish artists known as the Schildersbent, or Band of Painters (also often referred to as the Bentvueghels, or Brotherhood of Artists). They were primarily interested in depicting scenes of everyday life and views of the Roman campagna, and generally fused these two pictorial realms by portraying ordinary people going about their daily activities near buildings, bridges, and ruins dating from antiquity. Asselijn often joined his colleagues from the Schildersbent on excursions into the countryside to make drawings, which he executed with brown pen and wash to capture the effects of light and shadow.[3] For example, he and Jan Both (Dutch, 1615/1618 - 1652) likely visited the Ponte Molle in the late 1630s, at which time Asselijn drew the west-facing side of the bridge and Both viewed it from the east in preparation for an etching of the site.[4] Many of the locations Asselijn visited had been favorites of earlier members of the Schildersbent, such as Cornelis van Poelenburch (Dutch, 1594/1595 - 1667). Close parallels exist in Asselijn’s drawings of ancient ruins, among them those of the Palazzo Maggiore on the Palatine Hill, and in those of his predecessor.[5]

Asselijn left Rome for Amsterdam in the early 1640s, stopping for a while in Lyon, where he married. He then traveled to Paris, where he and his Dutch colleague Herman van Swanevelt (Dutch, c. 1600 - 1655) received a joint commission for a series of Italianate paintings for the Hôtel Lambert, an indication that he had already established an international reputation.[6] While in Paris, Asselijn also worked closely with the printmaker Gabriel Perelle (French, 1603 - 1677), who made a series of prints of Roman ruins based on Asselijn’s designs. For his preparatory drawings, Asselijn consulted the pen and wash drawings that he had made from life in Italy, among them his imposing Ruins of the Palazzo Maggiore on the Palatine (Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).[7]

Asselijn eventually settled in Amsterdam in 1647, where he found a thriving demand for his evocative Italianate scenes. His greatest period of activity as a painter was, in fact, during the late 1640s and early 1650s, the very years in which he executed the Gallery’s painting of the Ponte Molle. The exact chronology of his paintings from this period is difficult to establish because he rarely dated his works. The smooth finish, polished rendering of details, and golden light of this modestly scaled work seem to reflect his manner from the late 1640s, shortly after he returned from Paris. His paintings of the early 1650s, prior to his untimely death in 1652, are often larger in scale and more dramatic in character. His changes in style are evident in a comparison of the Gallery’s painting to another depiction of the Ponte Molle, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.[8] The latter has larger and more dramatic pictorial elements in the bridge and sky, greater human activity, and stronger contrasts of light and dark but lacks the calm serenity of The Tiber River with the Ponte Molle at Sunset.

The dating of the Gallery’s painting to around 1650 is reinforced by infrared reflectography, which reveals that Asselijn’s initial concept depicted ruins similar to those from his Parisian period. Prior to painting the bridge, Asselijn had blocked in the ruins of the Palazzo Maggiore on the Palatine. He based these ruins on the drawing that he had made in Rome, which he had also used for his preparatory drawing for Perelle’s print. The infrared reflectogram further reveals that at the left of this earlier composition Asselijn had included two arched wooden structures that probably depict cranes or some type of lifting devices.[9] Unfortunately, no comparable pictorial elements have yet been found in Asselijn’s other paintings or drawings with which to identify their function.

As is characteristic for paintings executed after his return to Amsterdam, Asselijn freely adapted the scene’s architectural and topographical character to enhance pictorial effects. The rhythmic shadows on the arches of the bridge and the golden light spreading across the sky suggest that the scene transpires in the late afternoon, yet, given Asselijn’s viewpoint from the south (the left riverbank) looking north, his golden light effects could not reflect reality. Equally imaginative is the round tower that Asselijn placed at the northern end of the bridge. As seen in both his drawing and Jan Both’s etching of the Ponte Molle (see note 4), a square fortified tower actually dominated that end of the bridge. Asselijn based the round tower on another ruin, the Tomb of the Plautii, located in Tivoli next to the Ponte Lucano.[10] It is not known why Asselijn chose to incorporate this round tomb into the structure of the Ponte Molle, but he undoubtedly recognized that the brutal, fortified tower at the north end of the Ponte Molle, built for defensive purposes in the 15th century, was architecturally unsympathetic to the graceful proportions of the bridge, which was built in 109 BCE. Asselijn’s decision to replace this tower with the Tomb of the Plautii may have had a historical logic in that the tomb dates from the early 1st century CE. Finally, Asselijn must also have responded aesthetically to the tomb’s round shape, noting how it created a pleasing coda to the rhythmic progression of the stone arches spanning the Tiber and a gentle transition to the light-filled Roman campagna stretching out to the north.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

December 9, 2019

Inscription

lower right, in monogram: JA

Provenance

(David Ietswaart, Amsterdam); Willem Lormier [1682-1758], The Hague;[1] (his estate sale, A. Franken, The Hague, 4 July 1763, no. 64); De Heer Yves. Gottfried Winkler [1731-1795], Leipzig, by 1768.[2] (anonymous sale, Frederik Müller et Cie at the Hotel de Brakke Grond, Amsterdam, 23 February 1904, no. 1); Joanna Maria Tydeman-VerLoren van Themaat [1861-1954], Ginneken;[3] by descent in the Tydeman family; purchased 7 November 2012 through (Rachel Kaminsky Fine Art, New York) by NGA.

Exhibition History
1938
Noord-Brabantsch Kunstbezit, Stedelijk van Abbe-Museum, Eindhoven, 1938, no. 37.
1948
Oude kunst in Brabants bezit: jubileum tentoonstelling, 1898-1948, Paleis-Raadhuis, Tilburg, 1948, no. 3, as Brug over de Tiber.
Technical Summary

The support is a thin, finely woven plain-weave canvas lined with an aqueous adhesive to a similar fabric. The tacking margins were removed during a previous treatment, and the edges of the painting were covered with brown paper tape.

There is a double ground that consists of a light red earth tone bottom layer and a thicker gray top layer. Microscopic examination of the painting along with infrared reflectography (IRR) and x-radiography helped determine that some, if not all, of the architectural elements were blocked out in brown paint, while the figures and cattle were lightly sketched out in an extremely thin, medium-rich transparent layer (small green and black particles are visible under magnification) on the completed background.[1] It is unclear if each method is used specifically for laying out a particular compositional element (architecture versus figures and animals), because the man in the bottom left corner as well as some of the cattle may have also been blocked out with brown paint.

The paint layering of the composition is complex due to significant changes made by the artist, most of which are visible with IRR and x-radiography. This earlier version depicted a completely different architectural structure—one that would have dominated the right side of the composition, extending close to the top edge and top right corner and ending near the center. It did not include the bridge or the circular tower in the center of the design. In addition, at least two figures and one bull were lightly sketched out but not painted in the final composition, and the bottom left quadrant (above where the cattle appear in the current painting) included a tree and water well.

Dina Anchin, based on the examination and treatment reports by Michael Swicklik

December 9, 2019

Bibliography
1768
Kreuchauf, Franz Wilhelm. Historische Erklaerungen der Gemaelde welche Herr Gottfried Winkler in Leipzig gesammelt. Leipzig, 1768: 101-102, no. 255.
1971
Steland, Anne Charlotte. Jan Asselijn nach 1610 bis 1652. Amstersdam, 1971: 71 fig. 46, 154 no. 183.
2013
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. "Jan Asselijn, The Tiber River and te Ponte Molle." National Gallery of Art Bulletin 48 (Spring 2013): 22-23, repro.
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