Cole painted this work shortly after returning from a trip to Europe from 1829 to 1832. The artist traveled to England, France, and Italy; he spent several months in Florence and later visited Rome. Cole responded strongly to the Italian landscape and particularly to its ruins, producing numerous sketches. In 1833 he met the wealthy merchant Luman Reed, whose first commission for Cole was an Italian landscape. The artist seized the opportunity to impress his new patron with a rich mixture of the motifs that had engaged him there. Cole created a serene, harmonious composition that shows in influence of the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. At the left an umbrella pine shades a ruined temple, and peasants dance before it, blissfully unaware that it signals the transitory nature of human glory. At the right a young man leans against a broken column, perhaps, with Cole, contemplating the passing of civilizations (though the artist added a comic note in the goat behind him that is trying to pull his coat down from the pillar). Beyond him is a crumbling aqueduct. In spite of signs of life in the distance, such as the small town on the lakeshore and sailboats on the water, Cole presented a somber view of Italy as an exemplar of decline. He affirmed his intentions by attaching the following verse from Samuel Rogers' poem Italy to the painting: "Oh Italy, how beautiful thou art! Yet I could weep, for thou art lying, alas! Low in the dust, and they who come admire thee, As we admire the beautiful in death."
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