This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

Interior View of Santa Maria Maggiore

Similar to the previous view, Piranesi generally adheres to established visual precedent and the traditional elements of the genre of the view 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 on famous monuments, primarily churches that would be attractive to visitors on the grand tour. As one of the major papal basilicas and as a unique example of an ancient Christian architecture, Santa Maria Maggiore was a must-see site for pilgrims, and antiquarians, and tourists – such as those we see in the foreground. The orderly and neat procession of people and regimented columns that line the central nave is more characteristic of Piranesi’s contemporaries than the exaggerated perspective and dramatic action typical of the Views of Rome, particularly those of ancient ruins. Piranesi might have based his design on Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s view of the church interior (c. 1755), seen below. There is substantial evidence of the circulation, collaboration, and copying of drawings and prints between Piranesi and other vedutisti in eighteenth-century Rome and Venice (Bevilacqua; Nevola, Piranesi: predecessori, contemporanei, e successori). A possible indication that Piranesi adapted Pannini’s work for the etching of Santa Maria Maggiore seen here, is the fact the general architecture of the composition is the same yet has been reversed (a process which occurs in printing, particularly with a traced image or copy). 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 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 baldacchino by Ferdinando Fuga, who also designed the façade of the church, and who Piranesi mentions by name in the title of the previous exterior view. Many of the modern additions to the church, such as 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, whilst 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 simple title, use of the word “veduta,” and lack of explanatory text, further indicate that Piranesi’s print is a more traditional view like that of Pannini or Giuseppe 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 a set. Possessing multiple prints of the same subject or by the same artist, could add to the prestige of a collection. In fact, the views of Santa Maria Maggiore 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 (3 in total) in the 1760s during the later part of his career. Art historian Mario Bevilacqua suggests that these later etchings, which Piranesi added to views that had already achieved some success on the print market, provided an easy way to turn a profit. It is interesting to note that Pannini’s son, Francesco, adapted a select group of his father’s paintings into print for this reason (seen in the gallery above). In a parallel manner, Piranesi’s son Francesco, reprinted the Views of Rome in the posthumous edition of the Opere published in Paris by the Didot press in the 1830s, held here at the University of South Carolina. 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 complete and cohesive set, and thus perhaps, a more marketable product to an international clientele. (ZL)  

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.
Vol. 16, Page 106

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