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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Piazza del Popolo

The Piazza del Popolo was the first stop for tourists entering Rome from the north and, for many visitors, formed their first encounter with the city. Fittingly, this view of the piazza introduces a group of eight etchings that represent the principal city squares of Rome. Drawing on the genre of the guidebook, these eight views are structured as a visual itinerary that communicate spatial orientation, geographic and historical information, as well as the visual impact of modern architecture and urbanism. In Piranesi’s etching, beholders are perhaps first struck by the towering obelisk at the center of the piazza. The obelisk here, as Piranesi notes in the key, was erected by Pope Sixtus V, who played a significant role in reshaping the urban design of Rome. During the early modern period several obelisks were positioned in strategic locations around the city, often as a show of papal authority but also, in very practical terms, to control the flow of traffic and connect the city’s most significant sites, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and the piazza seen here. Piranesi places beholders at the entrance to the Piazza, as though they have just passed through the city gate, the Porta del Popolo. From here, visitors could reach any part of the city thanks to the expansion of the piazza into its distinctive funnel shape, known as the tridente or trident. Piranesi’s use of oblique and slightly lowered perspective emphasizes the symmetry, regularity, and monumentality of the piazza, anchored by the central obelisk and its framing Baroque churches. 
These elements of urban design promoted a new architectural vision of a modern Rome that was reflected in recent approaches to cartography and the visualization of urban space. Giuseppe Vasi, for example, envisions a rigidly symmetrical piazza, pristine grounds, and orderly lines of carriages in his frontal view of the square. Giambattista Nolli went even further in his “Nuova Topografia di Roma” (1748), transforming the buildings of Rome into geometric blocks of black ink and streets into unobstructed white lines. In a parallel manner, Piranesi’s “Pianta di Roma,” based on Nolli’s map, not only demonstrates the geometry of the redesigned trident of the Piazza del Popolo, but also labels the space as “modern” to distinguish the eighteenth-century square from its ancient foundations. For example, Piranesi designates the street used by modern travelers to enter the Piazza del Popolo as the “Via Appia Moderna,” to distinguish it from the ancient Appian Way that was lined with ancient tombs and ruins. 
Piranesi’s map of the piazza, like the view seen here, showcases the modernity of Rome’s “new topography” by prioritizing legibility and spatial orientation. In the map, he visually demonstrates how the three principal streets of the trident cut through the city. In the view, Piranesi skews the perspective to further render the full expanse of square. The annotations reinforce this all-encompassing aerial tour of the city by not only labelling the streets themselves, but also indicating where they lead. The central street, the Via del Corso (“3”), contains the most traffic (much as it does today) and leads visitors to the Palazzo Venezia toward the Capitoline Hill. Also heavily laden with carriages is the street on the far right (“5”) which heads toward the Porta of the Ripetta and the Vatican. A few carriages take the Strada del Babuino (“4”) to the Piazza di Spagna, close to Piranesi’s printshop and museum. Through perspective and deep shading, Piranesi virtually transports beholders through the streets of the piazza, whereas in the view by Vasi, they are impenetrable and blocked from view.  
Where there is architectural order in Vasi, Piranesi foregrounds the frenetic energy of the piazza. Brought out by forceful incisions into the copper plate, the deep gashes in the dirt left by the numerous carriages imbue the scene with a sense of sound and dynamic movement. Piranesi’s space is immersive. We are caught looking at all the variety and activity of the square, just like the tourists that surround the obelisk and pause to observe all the architectural sights. It seems impossible to take it all it in: the monks going about their daily business on the left, the fully coiffed horses carrying elegant carriages to the city center, the empty carts waiting to be filled by laborers and merchants on the right, ciceroni giving tours, trampled-upon fragments, and flowing fountains. In Piranesi’s view, the Piazza del Popolo, the Square of the People, is true to its name. While in the view by Vasi the piazza is clean and orderly, a vision of Rome aimed at a clientele of well-to-do tourists, the variety and dynamism of Piranesi’s view more accurately reflects and accounts for the history of the space as being built by and for the Roman public. (ZL)

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

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