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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Rear Façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

This second exterior view of Santa Maria Maggiore, in which dramatic visual contrasts of perspective, light, and composition stage confrontations between order and disorder, ancient and modern, and nature and civilization, is more characteristic of Piranesi’s style than his etchings of the façade and interior of the same basilica. The activities of Roman street life frame the composition, and gesturing figures, dark shadows, and crumbling ruins create a space of dynamic movement in the foreground, where viewers confront the daily chaos of the piazza. A half-cut figure theatrically gestures toward the bustling street on the right. 
A wide array of characters hang their wash, drink from the fountain, sell their wares, point to the monuments, and rest on the crumbling ancient fragments. The most prominent activity occurs at the center: figures cut, collect, and tie large branches of wood with rope. Unruly and knotted, the central tree represents a nature untamed. The thorny and spectral edges of the large trunks split the composition in half and provide both a visual and thematic opposition to the regimented classical style of Renaissance architecture. In the close-up below, the contrast between rectilinear lines of the pilasters and spidery sketchiness of the tree branches is even more evident. 
At the same time, the once uncontrollable vegetation is now contained and transported by human intervention. The obelisk on the left also tells a story of conquest and displacement. Piranesi’s third annotation indicates that the structure was “ritrovato fra le rovine del Mausoleo d’Augusto, e fatto quivi trasportare ed erigere da Sisto V.” The transfer of the obelisk from an ancient tomb to a church piazza reflects an earlier movement from Africa to Rome, an imperial and colonial past that is installed, “restored”’ and continued by the papacy, whose power is further emphasized by the towering Renaissance chapels in the background, also commissioned by Sixtus V and Paul V, as indicaataed in the first and second annotations. At the same time, Piranesi depicts the obelisk in a state of decay, crumbling and scarred, with lines that resemble those of the tree branches and leaves. Though gleaming and pristine now, the rear Renaissance façade has already begun to succumb to the effects of nature and modern life. 

Emphasis on decay and the quotidian aspects of urban life may be suggested by the title, which indicates that it is a view of the Basilica “di dietro.” Jeanne Zarucchi argues that unique titles such as these, by including the phrase “altra veduta,” “evoke scenes of poverty and pathos ... a darker vision of the life that goes on amid the crumbling ruins” (367). Building on Zarucchi’s argument, we might understand “di dietro” to indicate not only a location—the rear façade of the Basilica—but also a “behind the scenes” glimpse into the lived and disordered space of the square. In contrast to contemporary views of the basilica’s rear façade, which are generally neat, orderly, and sparsely populated, the space of Piranesi’s etching is replete with complex contradictions. While Piranesi’s other two views of Santa Maria Maggiore generally follow visual tradition, largely in order to appeal to collectors and tourists, this early view begins to show Piranesi’s characteristic juxtapositions of architectural magnificence and contemporary decay. (ZL)

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

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