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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura

Similar in style and composition to his earliest views of Rome, this etching presents, at least on the surface, a “documentary view” of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (Verschaffel, 122-3). Often printed for illustrated pocket guidebooks, these early views provided a virtual itinerary through the city and were updated and reprinted frequently to include  information such as significant changes to the modern architectural landscape. Here, Piranesi visually records the most recent renovations to the piazza. Under the direction of Pope Clement XI (Giovanni Francesco Albani), the medieval walls surrounding San Lorenzo were removed and the space of the piazza and adjoining roads expanded. At the center of Piranesi’s view appears the gargantuan coat of arms of the Albani family, the star on top of the three mountains, resting on a giant plinth. Its mate on the opposite side of the piazza frames an equally large Corinthian column decked out with the heraldic symbols of the Pope. Piranesi exaggerates the height of the column such that it pierces the border of the image and towers over the medieval campanile—a perspectival impossibility.

This visual emphasis on the interventions of the Pope seems aggrandizing in nature, a type of visual dedicatory letter to one of the most powerful families in Rome. At the same time, viewers cannot miss a peculiar figure in the foreground: a man urinating on the bollard directly in front of the Albani coat of arms.
While there are similar figures in Piranesi’s prints—Heather Hyde Minor points, for example, to a street urchin urinating on the Pantheon—it is difficult to determine why Piranesi features this wayfarer so prominently in the composition (Minor 2015, 12). In perhaps a similar vein, Piranesi engraved a scatological map in the colophon of his treatise on design, the Diverse maniere d’adornare i cammini, whose expressed purpose was to defame a contemporary architectural historian (Minor 2015, 175-181). This figure might then represent a critique of modern architectural restoration and a patronage system that was largely controlled by the papal court. Given his centrality in the foreground and proximity to the title, this figure’s function certainly goes beyond the realistic, “documentary” rendering of the environment or, for that matter, a mere comedic device, although, admittedly, this humorous effect is enhanced by the raised hind quarters and wagging tail of his canine companion. Rather, the figure seems to call attention to or even embody the contradictions displayed in the piazza: renewal, decay, and disparities of wealth. The interior of the renovated piazza is populated with well-dressed tourists, while local inhabitants, beggars, and drunkards inhabit the street. They are on the outside looking in, hidden between columns and porticos, rendered in ghost-like lines. In a parallel manner, Piranesi positions beholders on the borders of the print, to invite reflection on its edges and interstices, rather than providing immediate access to the space. In these gaps, we find the annotation “1,” which reveals a crumbling obelisk on the Via Tiburtina, the ancient street that led to Tivoli. Along this road were ruins of ancient temples and tombs, many reduced to their bones, that Piranesi memorialized in countless prints. 

The pristine, newly restored piazza also calls attention to the church’s state of architectural decay, and perhaps the moral decay that surrounds it by both tourists and locals alike. Jeanne Zarucchi convincingly argues that such staffage figures “convey a message of regret for Rome’s decay … to enhance the ironic contrast between past and present, not just in the physical sense, but in a social and moral sense as well,” which “gives us insight into how the artist [Piranesi] felt about his city and the slow degradation of its legacy” (377). The exalted position of this seemingly lowly figure suggests a cultural commentary or social critique that is difficult to access, particularly for modern viewers. Yet, through this figure, Piranesi demonstrates that no element of his etchings is extraneous. Staffage figures have often been overlooked in scholarship, but this etching shows how they communicate larger meanings, inviting reflection on the issues of Piranesi’s day. (ZL)

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

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