The painterly effects of the tempestuous sky draw viewers into the baroque drama of this view of the papal basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. In the detail below, the delicate and “spidery” lines look as though they have been freely sketched onto the plate (Wendort, 168).
Alternating between soft and deeply carved incisions with the stylus, Piranesi’s etching technique enhances the theatrical play of light and shadow that grazes the curved and ornate façade of the church. Typical of the late baroque style, or “barocchetto,” of the early eighteenth century, the central façade is displayed by Piranesi with its most recent, and drastic, additions to accommodate the elliptical vestibule of the interior. The serpentine poses of the statues on the balustrade complement the undulating façade, also characteristic of this period. Their wide gestures and sketchy lines mirror those in the figures in the foreground, who, at times, even disappear into the background itself. Similarly, the ruins of what Piranesi calls the “Temple of the Speranza Vecchia,” both fade into and are highlighted by the white cloud on the left. By contrast, as seen in the detail below, the modern entrance to the “Monastery of the Cistercian Monks” (annotation 1), is delineated with rigid vertical lines.
Clear juxtapositions of light and shadow, curved and rectilinear lines, as well as sketchy and polished surfaces, call attention to the multiple periods of architecture that characterize the space. Yet the figures most emphatically point to the ancient ruins on opposite sides of the composition. Piranesi also highlights these older structures visually through the brightest and darkest hues, and verbally by labeling and describing them in the key below. The wall on the right side is almost completely obscured in shadow, yet in its monstrous girth it takes on an almost grotesque presence. Though crumbling and overgrown, its body in pieces of marble splayed at the border of the plate, the wall is actually of great significance to Piranesi: it contains the remains of the ancient Castrense Amphitheater that originally formed part of the Aurelian walls, ruins that are remarkably still visible to this day.
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.