This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of Santa Maria Maggiore



This first of three views of Santa Maria Maggiore formed part of the earliest group of prints in the Vedute di Roma. Produced in the 1740s, this early group consisted of the most famous buildings in Rome, including the Roman Forum, Vatican, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Without a steady income or secured patronage, Piranesi sought to publish and sell the most popular views to tourists in order to quickly establish himself on the print market. Santa Maria Maggiore was a key site on the pilgrimage route as one of the four papal basilicas and one of the ‘seven churches of Rome’ in addition to being famous for its ancient mosaics. In these early years he faced fierce competition from more established vedutisti, including his mentor and teacher Giuseppe Vasi (1710-82), who had already made several successful views of Santa Maria Maggiore. Indeed, comparing his exterior view to Piranesi’s shows their many similarities. For example, they share the oblique perspective which places emphasis on the Column of Peace on the right, as well as the newly designed central façade (1743) by architect Ferdinando Fuga (1699-1782).  

Similar to the small pocket guidebooks that were so popular among tourists, they included the latest information about the architecture of the city and the artists that shaped its landscape and representation. Serving as the papal architect for two popes, Fuga played a significant role in new style of Roman architecture during the eighteenth century. The perspective in Piranesi’s view is slightly more skewed and there is a higher contrast of light and shadow to make Fuga’s façade pop out in the composition. The lateral facades recede along with the domes and campanile which are rendered with softer lines. Fuga is also cited in Piranesi's view of the Palazzo della Consulta, for which he was the architect, and is one of the few architects Piranesi mentions by name among such renowned artists as Michelangelo, Alessandro Galilei, and Bernini. Indeed, Fuga appears in the title of both prints by Vasi and Piranesi. 

Fuga’s new design is also a central feature of Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s (1691-1765) view of the Basilica, seen above, which is shown from the same perspective as the views by Piranesi and Vasi. The similarities in overall composition among the three views demonstrate the culture of exchange, collaboration, and copying among these artists across media and genres (Nevola, 64 ; Bevilacqua, 44, 52-6). In these early views of Rome, Piranesi often adapted recognizable and authoritative images in order to capitalize on their previous success. Such reinterpretations or even reprintings was a common practice among printers, artists, and publishers, that, from a commercial point of view, could potentially provide a steady and secure stream of capital. Indeed, Jean Barbault and Piranesi's daughter Laura Piranesi, both of whom engraved many of Piranesi's etchings, later adapted Piranesi's images for their own publications. 

Piranesi even copied himself, riding on the success of his collaboration with cartographer Giambattista Nolli, whose map of Rome (below) was reprinted several times throughout the eighteenth century by authors and engravers across Europe. Piranesi provided the views in the lower border of the map. 

Looking closely at the bottom right corner of the map, there is a seemingly identical view of Santa Maria Maggiore. Yet, Piranesi’s view in the map is not topographically or architecturally accurate as the view in the Vedute di Roma shown above. Walking into the piazza, observers would see the column and fountain from behind. In the smaller map, the fountain and column has been flipped around to the front in order to showcase its architectural features. Furthermore, Piranesi places famous buildings from across the city together, compressed into one visually coherent yet spatially fictitious space in order to highlight the most magnificent examples of modern Roman architecture. Perhaps for commercial reasons these buildings are also are the subject of the early views that Piranesi chose to make in large format for the Vedute di Roma in contrast to the focus on ancient monuments later in his career (Bevilacqua, 55). The two following views of Santa Maria Maggiore shed further light on Piranesi’s printing strategies. (ZL)

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.

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