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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Basilica of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Appian Way

As Piranesi notes in the caption, San Sebastiano fuori le Mura was situated on the Via Appia, at the crossroads between the center of Rome and several famous ancient tombs. Due to its location, ancient catacombs, and status as one of the seven churches of Rome, it had long been a popular tourist site: it was advertised in broadsides, printed in numerous views, and included in virtually every guidebook of the city. The geographical position of the church and the chronological position of this image in Piranesi’s career reveal his infusion of antiquarian interests into the tourist genre of the veduta.
In fact, one of Piranesi’s earliest etchings (above) was a small view of the church included in the travel book Varie Vedute di Roma Antica, e Moderna, Disegnate e Intagliate da Celebri Autori, published by bookseller and printer Fausto Amidei (1731-c. 1771) in 1748 in Rome. With its small size, wide margins, numerous images “designed and engraved by the most celebrated artists,” and lack of explanatory text, this guidebook provided an emphatically visual itinerary of the city. Piranesi’s small views continued to be reprinted for the numerous editions of the Varie Vedute, contributing to his visibility and status as one of the “celebrated artists” in Rome. In these same years, he launched the Vedute di Roma, including this view of San Sebastiano (c. 1750).  

While both of Piranesi’s early views of the church were principally aimed at tourists, they are substantially different in content, style, and format. The large folio size combined with the perspective from the street in the Vedute di Roma places viewers much closer to the church, as though they are about to enter it. Populated by baying donkeys, beggars, ciceroni, tourists, and pilgrims, the street scene is full of movement and sound, and the wild gestures of the figures and high contrast of light and shadow increase the drama. By contrast, the bird’s eye view of the smaller view distances the church from viewers, making them uninvolved observers and the architectural space an object of study.

Both views highlight the architectural features of the church, such as the chapels, campanile, and colonnaded portico of the façade. Though it was founded in the fourth century, the San Sebastiano we see in Piranesi’s views is fundamentally Baroque. Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) commissioned the architects of his Villa, Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1613) and Giovanni Vasanzio (1550-1621), to redesign the church in the early seventeenth century, and Piranesi’s later view reflects the Baroque architecture of the church through dramatic lighting effects. Yet, the façade is entirely in shadow, almost hidden from view in the corner of the composition, and the Via Appia is vividly illuminated instead. This focus suggests Piranesi’s fascination with the tombs located along the Appian Way, which are the subjects of a group of views that begins with the Tomb of Cecilia Metella in the second volume of the Vedute di Roma. (ZL)

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

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