This second exterior view of Santa Maria Maggiore is more characteristic of Piranesi’s style than the previous two etchings of the same basilica. Here, dramatic visual contrasts of perspective, light, and composition stage the confrontation between order and disorder, ancient and modern, and nature and civilization. Gesture, dark shadows, sketchy figures, and crumbling ruins create a space of dynamic movement in the foreground which confronts viewers with the daily chaos of the piazza. Indeed, the activities of Roman street life frame the composition. A half-cut figure theatrically gestures toward the bustling street on the right.
In the foreground 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 are 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 recounts in annotation “3” how the structure was “found among the ruins of the Mausoleum of Augustus, and transported and erected by Sixtus V.” The transfer of the obelisk from an ancient tomb to a church piazza, reflects an earlier movement from Africa to Rome, an imperial past that is installed, ‘restored’ and continued by the papacy, further emphasized by the towering Renaissance chapels in the background, also commissioned by Sixtus V and Paul V (annotations “1” and “2”). At the same time, Piranesi depicts the obelisk in a state of decay, crumbling and scarred, similar to the way he renders 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 “from behind [di dietro].” Art Historian Jeanne Morgan Zarucchi argues that unique titles such as these, in particular the image Piranesi titles “other views,” all “evoke scenes of poverty and pathos ... a darker vision of the life that goes on amid the crumbling ruins” (Zarucchi 367). Building on Zarucchi’s argument, “di dietro” perhaps indicates more than a location, the rear façade of the Basilica, but rather a ‘behind the scenes’ view 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 to appeal to collectors and tourists, this early view begins to show Piranesi’s more individual style and approach which exemplify the Views of Rome. (ZL)
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.