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

The Digital Piranesi

Interior View of Santa Maria Maggiore

As in the previous view, Piranesi here follows visual precedent and the traditional elements of the genre of the veduta in order to appeal to commercial demands of the print market. Santa Maria Maggiore was among the earliest group of etchings Piranesi published, which focused primarily on famous churches that attracted pilgrims, antiquarians, and tourists, such as those in his foreground. The orderly procession of people and regimented columns that line the central nave is more characteristic of Piranesi’s contemporaries, particularly this view of the church interior by Giovanni Paolo Pannini (c. 1755), than the exaggerated perspective and dramatic action typical of his Vedute di Roma, especially those of ancient ruins. Broadly speaking, there is substantial evidence of the circulation, collaboration, and copying of drawings and prints between Piranesi and other vedutisti. A possible indication that Piranesi adapted Pannini’s work for this particular etching is the remarkably similar but reversed architecture of the composition, a process that occurs in printing, often in images that are traced or copied. The tomb sculpture of Pope Clement IX, with his notably outstretched arm in the gesture of benediction, appears on the left in Piranesi’s view. 

However, there are some notable differences between the two views. Piranesi’s shifts the perspective to the left in a more oblique manner. The rigidity of the perspective leads the eye to the baldachin by Ferdinando Fuga, who also designed the façade of the church, and who Piranesi names in the title of the previous exterior view. Many of the modern additions to the church—the papal insignia of Alexander VI, who quite literally lined the coffers of the ceiling with gold from the Americas, or the tapestries suspended from the ceiling—have been removed in favor of a focus on the building’s ancient architectural structure. The Ionic columns with their flat entablature on the left are the only elements illuminated by a staggering bright light, while the rest the of the nave is relatively monochromatic. Beyond these more characteristic departures, the similarities between the works of Pannini and Piranesi in style, composition, and genre are evident.  

The grouping of these three etchings of this basilica reflects eighteenth-century economies of print while creating a virtual itinerary through urban space and historical time. The simple title and lack of explanatory text further indicate that Piranesi’s print is a more traditional veduta like those of Pannini or Vasi. Referencing the work of other successful artists was common practice in terms of attracting buyers, as famous views of the same subject were often collected as sets, whose prestige increased with additional prints of the same subject or by the same artist. In fact, many of the views of this basilica by Piranesi and Vasi appeared in the collection of the famous eighteenth-century antiquarian and bibliophile Alessandro Capponi (Battaglia 95-100). Piranesi added this interior view to the group of three in the 1760s. Mario Bevilacqua suggests that Piranesi’s later etchings, in which he revisited sites in his earlier, successful views, provided an easy way to turn a profit. It is noteworthy that Pannini’s son Francesco adapted a select group of his father’s paintings into print for this reason, including this etching of Santa Maria Maggiore. In a parallel manner, Piranesi’s son Francesco worked to preserve his father’s copper plates and indirectly facilitated the reprinting of the Vedute di Roma in the Didot edition of the Opere. Transcending Piranesi’s time, these economies of print seem to have informed the publishers of this volume of the Opere, who also present the three prints of Santa Maria Maggiore as a cohesive set, and thus perhaps, a more marketable product to an international clientele. (ZL)  

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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