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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 faithful depiction that is in keeping with the genre of the veduta. Often printed for illustrated pocket guidebooks, these early views, which were frequently updated to show recent changes to the city’s landscape, provided a virtual itinerary through the city. 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 was 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. In a perspectival impossibility, Piranesi exaggerates the height of the column such that it pierces the border of the image and towers over the medieval campanile. This aggrandizing emphasis on the interventions of the Pope resembles a 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.
There are similar figures in Piranesi’s prints, but it is unclear why this figure features so prominently in this image’s composition. Heather Hyde Minor points to a street urchin urinating on the Pantheon and notes that, perhaps in 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, 12, 175-181). Katherine Wentworth Rinne speculates that, while emptying chamber pots in the streets was prohibited by new regulations in the early eighteenth century, public urination may have been acceptable behavior (179). 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. Admittedly, though, this humorous effect is enhanced by the raised hind quarters and wagging tail of the figure’s 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 citizens, beggars, and drunkards inhabit the street. They are on the outside looking in, hidden between columns and porticoes, rendered in ghost-like lines. In a parallel manner, Piranesi positions beholders on the borders of the print, inviting reflection on its edges and interstices rather than providing immediate access to the space.

The pristine, newly restored piazza also calls attention to the church’s state of architectural decay, and perhaps the moral decay that surrounds it, particularly through both the tourists and locals that are depicted. Jeanne Zarucchi convincingly argues that such staffage figures “convey a message of regret for Rome’s decay” and “enhance the ironic contrast between past and present, not just in the physical sense, but in a social and moral sense as well” (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 connects a seemingly crass aspect of urban life to issues of patronage and restoration. (ZL)

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

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