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Prue Bishop's J M W Turner Research Project 3

The so-called ‘Heidelberg’ by JMW Turner

Its suggested actual location in Susa, Italy

This is only a summary. The full paper is published in the March 2018 edition of London's The British Art Journal XVIII No 3

The subject oil painting is part of the Turner Bequest 1856 held in trust for the public by Tate Britain.


Turner was a master communicator, and to fully comprehend many of his works one has to engage in a process of coming to an understanding of the subject-matter through careful observation. This process reveals an extraordinary depth of thought lying behind each work, taking the willing observer well beyond a first impression.

Nowadays we usual­ly rely on experts to interpret works of art for us, but in this case of one of Turner’s final masterpieces, an oil painting long called Heidelberg that is on exhibition at London’s Tate Britain, both this title and its accompanying explanation have long been thought by many experts to be wrong. Yet even though 170 years have passed since the work was painted, no-one had come up with a plausible new title.

In such circumstances, I believe that Turner invites all of us that are interested in his artwork to commence afresh and see where a re-engagement might lead us. My detailed research paper in The British Art Journal (Spring 2018  XVIII No. 3) takes the reader on my personal journey as an artist in seeking such a revision.  I explain what I initially saw in the painting and how these observations related to a specific landscape setting that led me into an in-depth study of a famous historical event, and how that history resonated with the painting, leading me to strongly suggest that the work relates to Susa in Italy.

As I needed to put my feet on the same ground as Turner, the research took over two years. One of the delights of undertaking such a task though is that one gets to meet such wonderful people along the way.  I therefore wish to publicly record my special thanks for the suggestions and encouragement I received, and continue to receive, from the Maurienne Valley historian Mme Christiane Durand; M Michel Durand; M Jean-François Durand, Curator of the Val Cenis Sollières Sardières Archeological Museum; Signor Giorgio Griffa and Signora Marisa Marchetti of Giaglione and Signora Milena Falco of the Maison Franco-Italienne du Mont Cenis.

At the same time, I also wish to put on public record the considerable discouragement from further essential comparative high-quality photographic research work exuded by Tate Britain, as they have banned us for life from photography there. As many of you know, we undertake and make available our research findings to the public without seeking any remuneration or financial support from anyone or any entity. Tate Britain takes the view that our earlier research publications (summarised in this Web Site as Projects 1 and 2) undermined their exclusive commercial exploitation of the Turner Bequest.


Turner's Susa Oil Painting (out of copyright) - photo John Lumby - Public Domain
Official Tate Title "Heidelberg"; Suggested Revised Title "Susa" - Oil painting by JMW Turner - first half of the 1840s
Given to the public by JMW Turner himself
Tate Britain accession number: N00518 - Canvas size: 1.54 x 2.248 metres (5ft 6¼in x 7ft 4½in)

Over 40 years ago, I was lucky enough to have the chance to get to know Heidelberg that guards the entrance to the Neckar Valley in Germany not far from the Rhine, and in 2016 I returned there. I confirmed an opinion I had held for some years, that as nothing at all of any actual view of Heidelberg matches the Turner painting, the subject cannot possibly be Heidelberg.

An initial look at the painting

In this painting we see immediately an important event unfolding that promises to be the equal of any 19th-century grand opera, and we are drawn in to taking a closer look to determine what it is all about. In the background we are looking down a valley straight into a fairly low sun and so we are looking either east or west. Judging by the low-lying mist, and some misty cloud rising up the mountain­side on the left, it is probably morning and we are looking eastwards. To left and right are high, snow-capped mountain peaks. The snow line is quite high, and so the scene is set in a period outside winter, probably between late spring and early autumn. The slopes on the right appear to be heavily wooded and quite undulating. In the middle ground (to the left) is a castle set on two levels that, while imprecisely depicted, has the verticality that we associate with the Gothic style. To the right and slightly below the castle is a group of buildings that are also indistinct but nevertheless share a unified style that seems to be rather Italian. On the right the ground falls away very steeply to indications of a town in a valley that has a distinct church tower with other towers and buildings. The overall impression is of a town or city at the bottom of a steep drop below a castle. Near the centre of the picture, a small, dark, distinct tower rises from the mists.

We now consider the action. Centre stage is oc­cupied by a mass of people in a very happy, celebratory mood. Other people have their backs to us and appear to be snaking their way upwards from the town to join the celebrations.

An odd feature of the painting is that a quite separate event is occurring stage right (our left as we look) where someone is bowing to a kingly figure who is seated in the corner. Whereas the dress of those centre stage is Italian and that of Turner’s day, that of the figures on our left is of a very much earlier period. The kingly figure’s partner, though, appears to be rather ignoring the bowing person. Some weapons and helmets are on the ground in front of the couple, where there is also a table that has yellowish items on it.

Considering possible locations

I know the Alps very well and am comfortable with the painting’s background being Alpine, and I narrowed down the possibilities (please refer to the full paper in the British Art Journal for details) to the Maurienne Valley in France and the Susa Valley in Italy that are linked by the Mont Cenis Pass over which Turner travelled several times, lastly in 1836, just a few years before experts suggest that this painting was executed in the early 1840s.

The above view is eastwards down the Susa Valley in the direction of Turin, with Giaglione village in the foreground
In the morning, this view is straight into sun. Note the shape of the high mountains left and right,
and also the undulating ground on the right. On the right is also a steep drop into a valley.
The general lie of land here gives a first impression of nearing the right location for Turner's painting.
Susa is just out of sight behind the church in the centre of the photograph.

Just above Susa, I stopped on the old route that Turner would have followed as it dips into the village of Giaglione. I was struck by the correlation of the snow-capped mountain peaks with those in Turner’s painting. There was also a steep drop and rather lumpy terrain on the right that are also in the picture. This entire Susa Valley entrance to Italy is lined by continuous high mountains on both sides, and – most importantly – the morning view down the valley is direct into sun.

From near Giaglioni, looking East down the Susa Valley

The above annotated photo: This view is also looking down the Susa Valley and was taken from a long ridge extending below and behind the church in the upper photo.

Getting nearer to Turner's likely location for his painting - marked 'X' proved impossible.

The old centre of the city of Susa remained out of view to us, behind the hill on the right.

Note that there is a very old church tower marked in this photo that could be the one in the centre of Turner's painting (discussed later with an enlarged image).

The two cliff faces mentioned in the text below form a natural cutting through the rocks immediately below the words "Turner's location"

Much of the ground in this general area is dangerous, consisting of crumbling moraines from the last Ice Age, cut through by mountain torrents.

Only five km further along the road, and with the same mountains in view, one enters Susa and there is a pull-in on the right. From here, one’s interest is taken by the many towers that date back to well before Turner’s time. One sees immediately that their general architectural features relate to those in the painting, but above all, the tall cathedral bell tower is the dominant feature that takes one’s attention.

This stopping place is between two cliff faces, and one sees clearly that Turner’s viewpoint would have had to be higher. He had climbed up either one side or the other. But even with local help, I was unable to get to either of these likely viewpoints as one side was extremely dangerous and the other was in private hands and firmly locked and barred. Nevertheless, we were able to take photos from various nearby locations to confirm that items in the town lined up with those in the Turner painting. Please refer to photos above and below.

The historical importance of the location

As we have neither an original title for the oil painting nor even the slightest recorded hint as to its subject-matter, we are unlikely ever to have confirmation of Turner’s precise source of inspiration. However, one event that took place here is of such huge historical importance that it would certainly have justified a large oil painting.

In 773 AD, the Susa Valley in the centre of this view was under the control of Desiderius, King of the Lombards whose kingdom covered much of present-day Italy, a notable exception being the region around Rome. Desiderius therefore conceived a plan to place Rome under a distant siege, as a result of which the Pope sent a message for help to Charlemagne, King of the Franks, with whom he had an agreement. The Franks controlled an enormous area that to us today would be Western Europe north of the Alps, and this control extended all the way to Susa, a city that nestles into the south side of the Alps.

To help the Pope, Charlemagne needed to break through a series of defences – called Chiusae – that Desiderius had garrisoned in the Susa Valley. The Chiusae would have been located in the middle of Turner's painting, and it was a stroke of genius not to paint armies there in the picture because it is the geography - that he did paint - that is the essential ingredient of the blockage.

Above is the traditional location of the so-called Lombard Wall. But there is no archaeological evidence for this. From a military perspective it seems much more likely that Desiderius had in place a series of very effective defensive positions that blocked the valley in depth, called Chiusae. Charlemagne's main attacking force was coming from right to left down the valley. But note how vulnerable Desiderius' Chiusae would be to an entrapment from the left of the photo !

Although Charlemagne had superiority in numbers, it would have been clear to him that the narrowness of the valley and its likely defence in depth prevented him from applying sufficient frontal force to dislodge Desiderius. With local navigational help, he therefore led a relatively small force of specially-selected men along a little-known parallel mountain valley to the south of the Susa Valley, and once sure that his men would get through to the Lombard (Italian) side he made his way to Susa to lead his main army forward.

It would have been at this moment that Desiderius received news of that special force approaching from his rear that could trap him in the Susa Valley. On realising this, he ordered such a sudden retreat to his fortress cities that his army left behind their larger pieces of military equipment and food that greatly assisted his enemy. By the following year, Charlemagne had taken over Desiderius’ entire Kingdom and removed the threat to the Pope’s territory. Charlemagne’s military genius in overcoming the seemingly impossible Chiusae defensive blockage was therefore an event of enormous consequences in European history, with the story being passed on from generation to generation and eventually into re-published historical accounts that were available for Turner to read. This extract from The Poet’s Tale by H W Longfellow is an example of this process that neatly summarises Desiderius’ predicament:

And then appeared in panoply complete
The Bishops and the Abbots and the Priests
Of the imperial chapel, and the Counts
And Desiderio could no more endure
The light of day, nor yet encounter death,
But sobbed aloud and said: “Let us go down
And hide us in the bosom of the earth,
Far from the sight and anger of a foe
So terrible as this!

A "castle" completely trashed by Napoleon: "La Brunetta" Fortified City

Whilst the above may be considered a glorious victory by the people of Susa, there is another historical event that left a scar on the city so deep that its effects may be detected even today.

Left: Detail from Plate 42 of Major James Cockburn's book The Route of Mont Cenis published in 1822 and therefore possibly read by Turner.

The view is from the approach to Susa on the road from Turin, with the Mont Cenis pass road snaking its way upwards in the background. Susa old city is on the left.

In yellow, and presumably copied from an 18th century work, is a side view of La Brunetta: Fort and New City. This and other similar drawings give us some impression of the size and importance of this most impressive self-contained military city.

It took Napoleon's men two years to destroy it by explosives.

La Brunetta was not only one of Europe’s leading 19th century fortresses, it was also Susa’s “New City”. Construction commenced in 1709 and lasted around 30 years followed by continual changes and additions. It was largely buried into the rock, making it unusually strong. It was the flagship of the Piedmont-Savoy Kingdom’s defences (centred on its capital city of Turin) and typically described as immense, imposing and impregnable. Prominent foreign personalities visited such as the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria and the King of Naples, when it was noted that the fortress not only contained buildings for an entire community with extensive self-contained military facilities, but also a hospital, church and governor’s residence, and even a fruit orchard and cattle-pasture. It was indeed a New Fortified City.

La Brunetta never fired a shot in anger and, by the Peace of Paris of 15 May 1796, Napoleon imposed on Piedmont-Savoy the demolition of Piedmont’s entire defensive barrier against France, including this vast fortified complex. At one stage, even Susa's historic old city was threatened, giving rise to intense diplomatic efforts that saved it. It took an enormous amount of explosives and two years to complete the destruction of the fortress, under the close supervision of an occupying French force, leaving the inhabitants in a state of shock and mentally scarred – and with what must have been an impressive mound of rubble.

What Turner would have seen and felt in Susa

Turner passed through Susa in late August 1819, January 1820, early January 1829 and late August or early September 1836. In February 1818, the Reverend Thomas Pennington wrote the following:

[Susa] now contains about four thousand people, appears poor, and is crowded with beggars… [It] was formerly one of the keys of Italy, but key and lock are both gone, and the fortifications demolished… The old fort of Brumatta [sic] is now only a ruin, but is a fine object from the town.

Judging by the number of Turner’s sketches of Susa, we may be sure that he stayed in or near the city and became well acquainted with the various landscape views that it offered. From Pennington’s account, we conclude that Turner would have found the ruins of La Brunetta eye-catching, and he would have picked up the strong physical and emotional consequences of Napoleon’s campaigns that had befallen the inhabitants and their country. Some would have relayed to him their visual recollections of the once impressive spectacle of the fort. During our own visit, our enquiries revealed a handed-down feeling of emotional loss lying just below the surface with also a pride in what once had stood there.

Turner’s Continental travels brought him face to face with the effects of the Napoleonic Wars, and here in Susa he would have witnessed the after-effects of the remarkable destruction of the New City. He would certainly have re-built that city in his mind, especially the part that overlooked the old city. And given that the main events of the picture are set in Susa, it seems reasonable that he should include a symbolic representation of that lost city in the form of a castle in that same location. (Please refer back to the third image above, compared with Turner's painting, to see that the locations are the same).

Above: JMW Turner: The largest of the Esseillon Forts in the Maurienne Valley (in today's France) Watercolour 197x280mm 1836.

The 1815 Congress of Vienna made France pay reparations to the Kingdom of Sardinia (that included Piedmont-Savoy) and a replacement was constructed, not in Susa but on the north side of the Mont Cenis Pass, and not just one fort, but several that linked together to protect the Piedmont Turin) part of the Kindgom. In 1836 Turner sketched the largest of these just-completed forts, and the above resulting watercolour, The Fort de l’Esseillon Val de la Maurienne, France demonstrates his deep fascination with such monumental military projects. His sketchbooks are full of castles and forts. His work on l’Esseillon would inevitably have linked back to the emotional hurt in Susa over the enforced destruction of their once magnificent La Brunetta, and he would have been aware of the political situation as Europe looked ahead to the future of an independent Kingdom of Sardinia (that one may view as a precursor of the eventual formation of today's Republic of Italy).

Physical links between items in the painting and those still present on the ground

In the bottom right-hand side of Turner's oil painting is the city of Susa, set in a deep valley at the bottom of a steep drop from the viewer.

When we asked local people if they could identify buildings in Turner’s painting, they always picked out the San Giusto Cathedral bell tower, not only because it is the dominant item, but because it has decorative corner pieces on the top of the tower. Above, we may compare Turner’s tower with our photograph. These sharp corner decorations are common to both the Maurienne and the Susa Valleys, but they are greatly exaggerated on the Cathedral Bell Tower and therefore an identifying feature of Susa.

Near this tower in the painting is at least one archway and possibly more. These were locally thought to relate to one or more of: a) the famous Roman Archway of Augustus; b) nearby archway remains of a Roman viaduct; and/or c) the main Medieval archway entrance to the old city that from the west is immediately in front of the Cathedral bell tower and a probable (memorable) first view of the old city. The heavily undulating wooded terrain on this side of the painting is also a characteristic of this part of the Susa Valley.

Annotated View from just to the NW of Susa, showing Turner's most likely viewpoint for his painting

It was suggested to us that the positioning of the thin dark bell tower in the oil painting would identify it as belonging to the Parrocchia di Sant’ Evasio, the ‘church outside the walls’ that is first mentioned in a text dated 1065 AD.14. This is an enlarged part of the third image and would appear to support this opinion.

The research paper published in the British Art Journal considers other possible matches, with comparative illustrations.

On the left of the painting, the castle, although imaginative, draws on emotional and architectural features that could relate to Susa and the Susa Valley, most notably the verticality and shapes of what is termed ‘Lombard Gothic’. It was also suggested that what appears to be a river on the left of Turner’s painting may be a symbolic reference to a very visible stream and waterfall that descends from the religiously significant Rocciamelone mountain. While the actual water does not flow down the castle rock, it would be visible on the left from our suggested Turner viewpoint and, if indeed included, would be understandable in view of the considerable local importance of this mountain that connects the peak with the Madonna (along with a triptych in the Cathedral that Turner may have been shown). From a symbolic perspective, this would be a very strong link with Christianity.

Looking north over Susa

The above annotated photograph draws together key items on the ground with those in Turner's painting.


The links between Charlemagne’s invasion of Italy and the painting

From the 8th century history presented above, one may deduce that the king in the lower left-hand corner of Turner's painting (shown above) is Charlemagne, symbolically wearing the crown with which Pope Leo III eventually crowned him Imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans) in 800 AD.. This part of the painting would be set in the year 774 AD. The person bowing would be the capitulating figure of Desiderius, symbolically handing over control of the Kingdom of the Lombards. We see from his bald head that he has been tonsured: a shaving of the hair of the head in a common medieval practice of religious humility, indicating that he is on his way to spending the rest of his life banished to a distant monastery. Further symbolic signs of capitulation may be deduced from the medieval pole weapons laid in front of the King along with black iron helmets and what may be gold items on a table. Additional items may be included, should we ‘see’ them in the painting: Desiderius’s horse and banner.

The painting’s geometrical centre-area appears to have nothing in it, but the surrounding setting places us precisely in that part of the Susa Valley where the collapse of Desiderius’s Lombard Chiusae defences allowed Charlemagne an all-important access to Italy, not only to take over the Lombard Kingdom, but also to halt the Lombard threat to Rome and the Pope. If our deductions are correct, it is a stroke of Turner’s genius that a work focusing on one of history’s great military events involving thousands of soldiers was achieved without the need to depict a battle scene. Indeed, Turner would have appreciated that whilst there was no battle, there was nevertheless a crucially important victory here that changed the course of history.

The woman sitting next to Charlemagne would be his second official wife Hildegard. It was normal practice for a wife to accompany her husband on campaigns and indeed, by the time Hildegard died at the age of no more than twenty-nine, she had been married only 12 years yet had given birth to nine children in various locations, including one on this campaign that died on the way home. Her inclusion in the painting is important. She replaced Charlemagne’s first wife, who may have been one of Desiderius’ daughters, as Turner would have understood from his history book; and so Desiderius, in his bald-headed bow, is not only acknowledging the loss of his kingdom but also Hildegard’s royal status and that of her offspring, while recognizing the shattered expectations of his own lineage. Hildegard’s apparent aloofness from the action may also now be understood.

The crowd with its happy faces, music and dancing sets the entire picture in a mood of great celebration. The style of the clothing is Italian and of Turner’s day. They are therefore celebrating Charlemagne’s victory in which their ancestors participated and that eventually had huge and long-lasting consequences far from their valley for the whole of Western Europe.


Turner’s masterpiece may be considered to be a public celebration focusing on Charlemagne breaking through the Chiusae defences in the Susa Valley in 773AD that eventually resulted in King Desiderius surrendering control of his Lombard kingdom in 774AD and the removal of a serious threat to Rome that led the Pope to crown Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans and the eventual dominance of Roman Christianity throughout Europe, headed by the Pope. Some may therefore wish to consider Turner’s castle as a symbol of that eventual Empire, while my preferred view is that Turner is encouraging the people of Susa to draw on this famous event in order to help put behind them the loss of their magnificent La Brunetta castle: their once ‘New City’, and look forward to a happier future for their country.

Our investigation has arrived at a particular interpretation that offers no certainties, no matter how deep and fascinating the resulting story may be. None the less, this journey has been remarkable. We were led into deep considerations of Charlemagne, Empire and Christianity and the eventual huge impact on European history, combined possibly with Turner's wish to see Susa’s citizens recover from the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars.

My conclusion, if correct, underlines Turner’s remarkable grasp of European history, politics and topography, thereby reinforcing his position as one of the most important European artists of the 19th Century.

I hope above all that others will be encouraged to engage in a process of communication with Turner works and see where careful observation and study may lead them, as all his masterworks have a great deal more to tell us than could possibly be appreciated from a simple viewing.

For those that wish to delve a little deeper, please refer to the complete research paper in the British Art Journal Vol XVIII No.3 published in March 2018 together with its references. There you will find more comparative images and also more images of La Brunetta. There is of course a great deal more information available on line and elsewhere about the events described here, and also about the many local religious and non-religious local events in Susa and the Susa Valley.

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Latest News - Title to be Changed

A Senior Tate Britain Curator informed Prue Bishop aurally in early 2020 that her suggestion to change the title of this important late Turner oil painting is proceeding in time for the Gallery's post-pandemic re-opening.

Thank you for your interest; send us your comments if you wish.

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Photos of scenes as seen in our own time are © John Lumby aka John & Prue Bishop.
The Turner oil painting is held in trust by the Trustees of Tate Britain in London. The painting is out of copyright.
ALL the photos of the painting were taken by John Lumby.
None of the images originated with Tate Britain or the Turner Bequest.
His objective is to be as close as possible to the original, so he has not added any artistic originality.
The images are consequently in the Public Domain in accordance with emerging EU Law.

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