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 of interest to any visitor to the eternal city. Due to its location, ancient catacombs, and status as one of the seven churches of Rome, the church was a popular tourist site throughout the early modern period. Indeed, San Sebastiano was advertised in broadsides, printed in numerous views, and included in virtually every guidebook of the city.
In fact, one of Piranesi’s earliest etchings (seen 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 in 1748 in Rome. Amidei’s bookshop was on the Via del Corso, a street full of shops and foot traffic, much as it is today. With its lack of explanatory text, Various Views of Ancient and Modern Rome provided a visual itinerary of the city. Its small size, wide margins, and numerous images “designed and engraved by the most celebrated artists,” provided an attractive travel souvenir. Piranesi’s small views continued to be reprinted for the numerous editions of the Varie Vedute, contributing to his visibility and status as a “celebrated artist” in Rome. In these years, he launched the Vedute di Roma, including this view of San Sebastiano printed around 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. Passing by baying donkeys, beggars, ciceroni, tourists, and pilgrims, the street scene is full of movement and sound. The wild gestures of the figures and high contrast of light and shadow increase the drama that tourists might encounter if they were physically in front of the church.
By contrast, the bird’s eye view of the smaller view of San Sebastiano creates distance between viewers and the church. Our position is that of an observer, as though the architectural space is an object of study. It is not the immersive experience of the larger veduta, which makes both the church and the street a lived, almost walkable space. Both views highlight the architectural features of the church, such as the chapels, campanile, and colonnaded portico of the facade. Though it was founded in the fourth century, the San Sebastiano we see in Piranesi’s views is fundamentally Baroque. Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned the architects of his Villa, Flaminio Ponzio and Giovanni Vasanzio, to redesign the church in the early seventeenth century.
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. The street, the Via Appia, is instead illuminated. The focus on the Appian Way may be due to Piranesi’s fascination with the tombs located there, such as the Tomb of Cecilia Metella. In this view of the tomb in the Antichità Romane, Piranesi notes specifically its proximity to San Sebastiano. By linking these two prints, Piranesi goes beyond the pocketbook guides, such as that by Amidei, by creating a virtual tour of Rome across the volumes of his published works. (ZL)
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.