Hubert Robert, known as "Robert of the Ruins," spent eleven years as a student in Rome from 1754 until 1765. During his sojourn he studied at the French Academy, but dedicated most of his energy to sketching the Eternal City and the Roman campagna. He reworked the ideas recorded in his sketchbooks, in drawings, and paintings throughout his career.
In The Old Bridge, Robert used an ancient monument as the basis for his modern composition. The Ponte Salario, which was built in the sixth century, is shown from below. The arch of the bridge, illuminated by a soft pink glow, separates foreground from background space. Through the bridge we see the Roman countryside in the distance. The crumbling pier on the far left has been converted into a contemporary barn.
Robert has combined the grandeur of ancient Rome with the anecdotal. For example, the young man on the right bank admires the washerwoman opposite, while the old woman on the pier entices her cat to return. Robert, by linking present and past under the warm light of the Italian sun, reminds us that bridges are emblems of the passage of time, thus evoking a nostalgia for the glory of ancient Rome.
The Ponte Salario takes its name from the Via Salaria, the old route linking Rome and the salt-producing areas of the Sabine country. Spanning the river Aniene near its confluence with the Tiber, at a location just north of the capital where once stood the ancient settlement of Antemnae, it is one of the oldest of Roman bridges. Its history and numerous transformations are well chronicled. It was constructed in the fourth century B.C. Legend has it that it was on or near the Ponte Salario c. 360 that the Roman consul Manlius Imperiosus Titus slew a soldier from Gaul and removed a gold chain, or torque, from his body, hence his cognomen Torquatus. The bridge endured through the Roman Republic and Empire, but in 546, during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, it was destroyed by the army of the Ostrogoth king Totila, only to be rebuilt c. 565 by the general Narses, who ultimately defeated the invaders.
The crenellated tower serving as a tollhouse in Robert’s time, which looms so large in the National Gallery of Art’s painting, was a medieval addition to the bridge and was no doubt meant to serve a military purpose.
Similar towers were built on other bridges in and around Rome, among them the Ponte Mammolo, the Ponte Molle, the Ponte Milvio, and the Ponte Nomentano.
A photograph of the nearly demolished bridge was taken at the time by John Henry Parker (illus. in Bruno Brizzi, Rome cento anni fa nelle fotografie della raccolta Parker [Rome, 1975], 213).
For illustrations of various views of the Ponte Salario, both engraved and drawn, see I Ponti di Roma dalle collezioni del Gabinetto nazionale delle stampe (Rome, 1975), nos. 117, 124, 130, 155, 177, 207, 219, 220. Another fantastical depiction of the bridge attributed to the Swiss-born architect and draftsman Jean François Thomas (1758 – 1813), called Thomas de Thomon, is one of a pair of drawings recently with the Galerie Didier Aaron in Paris. See also Dietmar Lüdke, Hubert Robert 1733 – 1808: und die Brücken von Paris (Karlsruhe, 1991), 252; Sarah Faunce, “Rome and Its Environs: Painters, Travelers, and Sites,” in Philip Conisbee et al., In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting (Washington, DC, 1996), 57, fig. 2.
In the history of the veduta, bridges were seen as “emblematic of the passage of life.”
Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian (Oxford, 1977), 338. See also John Sweetman, The Artist and the Bridge 1700 – 1920 (Aldershot [Hants] and Brookfield, Vt., 1999), 1 – 21.
A similar picture was last recorded in a Paris sale (Drouot Montaigne, June 25, 1991, lot 63, repro.).
In the National Gallery’s painting, Robert suggests the corrosive effects of time on manmade structures. A wooden railing replaces a lost section of the bridge’s ramp, and on the abutment at right, the timbered substructure of the bridge can be seen through a large, gaping hole in the crumbling masonry. As the real subject of the painting is the bridge, various types of Italianate figures in the scene are no more than colorful props. Peasants enter the tollhouse tunnel; a woman gestures to her cat from the balcony; a herdsman prods his cattle across the bridge; women wash and hang their laundry on the bank of the river. A tollman or constable holding a stick stands in the shadows of the embankment, and a woman crouches behind him. Seen through the great arch against the backdrop of the Sabine hills, a boatman transports several figures across the water. Other details enhance the picturesque quality of the composition: carpets and bedding hang from the balcony and the bridge’s parapet; a papal escutcheon surmounts the tollhouse door; and weeds, grasses, and vines grow along the river’s edge, the wooden railing, and the pergola surmounting the tower. The oppositions of solids and voids, closed and open spaces, and ponderous and aerial effects help dramatize the landscape. Finally, the sophisticated geometry of the composition, with its multiple arches, is made even more complex by the play of warm light and cool shadows.
Hubert Robert produced two versions of The Ponte Salario, of which the National Gallery’s painting is probably the earlier. The second, larger picture
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, May 10 – 11, 1920, no. 32, repro.
Robert’s two views of the Ponte Salario could be considered as capricci, for he has taken considerable license with both the architecture and the topography. Unlike
Robert may also have known Giuseppe Vasi’s engraving of the Ponte Salario (see Luisa Scalabroni, Giuseppe Vasi (1710 – 1782) [Rome, 1981], 73, no. 165, pl. 83).
[T]he bridge is no longer an object among many, but the exclusive object viewed in such a manner as to occupy the visual field in all of its scope. Rising to a menacing height above our heads, it thrusts itself towards the other bank in a vertiginous foreshortening. Its immediate presence confers on it a dramatic character. From this vantage point, the arch becomes the primordial element. It alone makes us sense the enormous mass and weight of the structure, it alone captures the eye by the elementary character of its form and by the boldness of its dimensions.
“[L]e pont n’est plus un objet entre autres, mais l’objet exclusif, envisagé de manière à occuper à lui seul le champ visuel dans toute son étendue. S’élevant à une hauteur menaçante au-dessus de nos têtes, il s’élance vers l’autre rive dans un raccourci vertigineux. Sa présence immédiate lui confère un caractère dramatique. Avec cet angle de vision, l’arche devient l’élément primordial. C’est elle qui nous fait sentir la masse et le poids énormes de l’ouvrage, c’est elle qui captive le regard par le caractère élémentaire de sa forme et par la hardiesse de ses dimensions.” Johannes Langner, “La vue par-dessous le pont: fonctions d’un motif piranésien dans l’art français de la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle,” in Piranèse et les français (Rome, 1976), 294 – 295. On this print, see also John Sweetman, The Artist and the Bridge 1700 – 1920 (Aldershot [Hants] and Brookfield, Vt., 1999), 30 –31, no. 14.
The National Gallery’s The Ponte Salario was featured in the catalogue of the estate sale of the maréchale duchesse de Raguse, née Anne Marie Hortense Perregaux, widow of one of Napoleon’s marshals, Auguste Frédéric Louis Viesse de Marmont (1774 – 1852). Born in Paris in 1779, she was the daughter of the Swiss-born banker Jean Frédéric Perregaux, a native of Neuchâtel, and his French wife Adélaïde de Praël de Surville (1758 – 1794). The preface to the catalogue, written by the “expert” Mennechet, states that the paintings of the late eighteenth-century French school in the sale had been acquired by the decedent’s father from the artists themselves. Perregaux had owned major works by
Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Madame Perregaux is in the Wallace Collection, London. See J. Hedley, “Vigée Le Brun’s Newly Conserved Portrait of Mme Perregaux in The Wallace Collection,” Burlington Magazine 146 (Apr. 2004): 224 – 233.
Bielefeld, Germany, August Oetker collection. For a discussion and color illustration, see the entry by Hermann Arnhold in Sammlerlust: Europäische Kunst aus fünf Jahrhunderten (Munich, 2003), no. 62.
In the inventory of Perregaux’s estate (Archives nationales de France, Paris: Étude X, liasse 882), the National Gallery’s painting was one of several decorating the salon of Perregaux’s townhouse at 9, rue du Mont Blanc and was valued at 120 francs. (“Item, un autre [paysage] par Robert représentant un pont cadre de bois doré Prisé cent vingt francs, ci . . . . . . .120.”)
For the lives of Perregaux and his daughter, consult Paul de Pury, “Jean-Frédéric Perregaux,” Musée Neuchâtelois n.s. 6 (1919): 7 – 12; Jean Lhomer, Le banquier Perregaux et sa fille, la duchesse de Raguse (Paris, 1926); Romuald Szramkiewicz, Les Régents et censeurs de la Banque de France nommés sous le Consultat et l’Empire (Geneva, 1974), 311 – 318; Geoffrey de Bellaigue, “Jean Fréderic Perregaux, the Englishman’s Best Friend,” Antologia di Belle Arti 29 – 30 (1986): 80 – 90. A portion of the collection was bequeathed to the banker’s son, Alphonse Claude Charles Bernardin Perregaux (1785 – 1841), who married the daughter of another of Napoleon’s marshals, Étienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald, duc de Tarente. The younger Perregaux’s estate sale took place in Paris at the Galerie Le Brun on December 8 – 9, 1841, and was composed primarily of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings.
The bridge. View of a large single-arched bridge occupying the entire painting, and upon which rises a ruined fortress which has been transformed into a rustic dwelling. Above the crenellations are posts bearing grapevines. On the bridge, the stone parapet of which is half-destroyed and replaced by joists, can be seen a cow passing by, and below, women wash and hang their laundry. This work is of the most admirable execution and of the finest effect.
“Le pont. Vue d’un grand pont d’une seule arche qui occupe tout le tableau, et sur lequel s’élève un château-fort en ruines, changé en habitation rustique; au-dessus des créneaux sont plantés des poteaux qui portent une vigne. Sur le pont, dont le parapet de pierre est à moitié détruit et remplacé par des solives, on voit passer une vache, et dessous, des blanchisseuses lavent ou étendent leur linge. Ce morceau est de l’exécution la plus admirable et du plus bel effet.” Paris, Hôtel des Commissaires-Priseurs, Catalogue des tableaux des écoles française, hollandaise et flamande formant la collection de Mme la Maréchale Duchesse de Raguse, December 14 – 15, 1857, no. 42.
No preparatory studies for the composition are known. An anonymous copy of the Gallery’s painting was featured in a London auction in 1990.
Christie’s, South Kensington, February 7, 1990, no. 42, repro.
This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 404–409.
Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.
January 1, 2009
Jean Frédéric Perregaux [1744-1808], Paris and Viry-Châtillon; by inheritance to his daughter, the maréchale duchesse de Raguse [1779-1855, née Anne Marie Hortense Perregaux], Paris and Viry-Châtillon; (her estate sale, Hôtel des Commissaires-Priseurs, Paris, 14-15 December 1857, no. 42); Madame Louis Stern, Paris, by 1911; (sale, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 22 April 1929, no. 19); (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York); sold 23 December 1946 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1952 to NGA.
- Eighteenth-Century French Art, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1931, no. 31.
- Exhibition of French Painting from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1934, no. 53, repro.
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Lüdke, Dietmar. Hubert Robert 1733-1808: und die Brücken von Paris (Exh. cat. Staatliche Kunsthalle.) Karlsruhe, 1991: 94, under no. 51, repro.
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- Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 371, repro.
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- Burda, Hubert. Die Ruine in den Bildern Hubert Roberts. Munich, 1967: 45-46, fig. 32.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 102, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 306, repro.
- Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 338-339, fig. 305.
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- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 341, no. 462, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 353, repro.
- Hubert Robert 1733-1808: und die Brücken von Paris. Exh. cat. Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, 1991-1992: 94, under no. 51, repro.
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- The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. A Centennial Celebration of Wildenstein's Presence in New York. Exh. cat. Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 2005: 59, fig. 57, 73 (not in the exhibition).
- Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: no. 86, 404-409, color repro.