Canaletto specialized in vedute, or views, of Venice that he sold to tourists on the Grand Tour in the 1700s. For a brief time in the 1740s, he painted scenes of contemporary life set around the principal monuments of ancient Rome, based either on drawings made during an earlier visit to Rome or on engravings by other artists. Both groups of his views appealed to the traveler as well as the antiquarian.
Seen through the central bay of the Arch of Constantine is the Colosseum, which Canaletto shifted to the left in the interests of compositional design. Figures converse, stroll, or carry out daily chores in the vicinity of these ancient buildings. To the left, a lone man sits on ruins with his back to the viewer, perhaps sketching or writing. Wealthy tourists and their servants laden with goods contrast with the poor Roman natives who have nothing, such as the woman who lies against the Arch or the man with a cane at the right. In this painting, Canaletto seems to remark on the gulf between Rome's ancient glory and the city's current impoverished state.