• Hannibal and his men crossing the alps

Hannibal and his men crossing the alps

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Hannibal and his Men crossing the Alps
Artist: Joseph Mallord William Turner
Oil painting on canvas; Size:145x236.5cm; Tate Gallery, London.

Turner had crossed the Alps for the first time in 1802. Two years earlier, Napoleon had invaded Italy with his troops through the St. Bernard Pass, evoking Hannibal's exploit of 218 BC: Rome's war with Carthage was compared with Great Britain's war against France. With this picture Turner introduced the landscape into history painting: the vortex of the storm sweeps over the men, tiny figures at the mercy of the elements. The sources for this painting of 1812 were two hooks present in the painter's library, the English translation of the Latin writer Livy's histories of Rome and Oliver Goldsmith's Roman History, while a lost painting by Cozens and a pair of ceramic medallions representing a similar subject may have provided him with further ideas. In 1810, moreover, the artist had witnessed a spectacular storm while staying at the Yorkshire home of his friend Walter Fawkes, a reformist parliamentarian and amateur historian who had probably pointed out the connection between the historical event and the weather. In the catalogue of the Royal Academy in 1812, the work was accompanied by verses written by Turner himself, taken from his collection of poems entitled The Fallacies of Hope, in the conviction that painting and poetry were closely related. The landscape painting disintegrates into the blurred vision of a blind struggle: to make observers feel as if they were caught up in the storm, Turner would have the picture hung at a lower height than was usual for a canvas of such size. It is a vision that inspires fear, the aesthetic experience of the sublime in contrast to the soothing harmony of the beautiful, the "delectable horror" stirred by tempests, vast spaces, silence, the power of natural phenomena and the infinite, a sense of dismay that does not threaten observers, but allows them to feel, according to the theories of the time, the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of experiencing.

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