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.
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.
I would like to thank Henriette Rahusen for her extensive research on this painting. The Ponte Molle crosses the Tiber 3.1 miles north of the 17th-century city gate and about 4.5 miles from the old Roman city center.
According to legend, Constantine had a dream in which a cross appeared in the heavens and a voice told him he would win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge if he used the cross as his standard. After he won the battle, he attributed his victory to the god of Christianity. Once he was emperor, Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
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.
For Asselijn’s drawings, see Anne Charlotte Steland-Stief, Die Zeichnungen des Jan Asselijn (Fridingen, 1989), especially 207–208, no. 3, fig. 70, and Peter Schatborn, Drawn to Warmth: 17th-Century Dutch Artists in Italy (Amsterdam, 2001).
Asselijn’s drawing of the Ponte Molle has at times also been attributed to Willem Schellinks (1627–1678) and Thomas Wijck (1616–1677). Jan Asselijn, The Ponte Molle, c. 1640, pen and brush in brown over traces of black chalk, Amsterdam Museum, legaat C. J. Fodor, TA 10315; and Jan Both, The Ponte Molle, etching, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1972.28.23. The Amsterdam Museum dates their drawing to 1647, however by that date Asselijn had long since left Italy and was back in Amsterdam (see