This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Piazza di Monte Cavallo (1 of 2)

Piranesi produced two views of the Palazzo Pontificio, or pontifical palace, located on the Quirinal hill. Though the Pope traditionally lived in the Vatican, the pontifical palace became the Pope’s place of residence by the eighteenth century; it now serves as the residence for the President of the Republic. Both of Piranesi’s views show the complex of buildings which housed different branches of the papal bureaucracy, including the soldier’s quarters on the left (“4”), apartments for the papal court on the right (“2”), the scuderia or stables, and the tribunal in the Palazzo della Consulta. The organization of these offices and residences in a singular area, from which the Pope could conduct both religious and state affairs, reflected the centralization of the papal bureaucracy by Piranesi’s time (Hyde Minor 2010, 152-7). As the official architect of the papal palaces, Ferdinando Fuga (1699-1728) had a major hand in designing this new space. Piranesi’s image does not yet show the completed renovations (ibid, 166). However, the diagonals of the roofs as well as Piranesi’s compression of space through the manipulation of two-point perspective reflect the role of the square in consolidating the papal government. In the textual key, Piranesi further describes the name and location of each building and how they served the long, mostly secular, arm of the papacy. The text indicates Piranesi’s interest in design, and in particular, the way form relates to function in palace architecture.  

Despite all the descriptive details in the text, the ancient statues in the center of the square are the image’s visual focus. Piranesi tells us that the sculpture depicts Alexander the Great taming his famous horse, Bucephalus. It is from this sculpture that the piazza was often called the “Monte Cavallo,” or “Mountain of the Horses.” Piranesi’s title, “Veduta della Piazza del Monte Cavallo,” as opposed to the more conventional title, “Palazzo Pontificio,” emphasizes ancient monuments over modern architecture. In Piranesi’s veduta the papal apartments are merely a backdrop, diminutive compared to the colossal dimensions of Alexander and his horse. Indeed, a pile of ancient fragments appears directly above the title, as if to signal the visual and sculptural significance of antiquity. The inscription on the two bases of the sculptures, as well as Piranesi’s annotation, indicate that they were carved by the famous ancient Greek artists Phidias, the chief artist to Perikles and principal designer of the Parthenon, and Praxiteles. Adding to the sculptural splendor of the scene are the rays of sun that form a halo around the sculptures, highlighting the way the two ancient sculptors adeptly carved the glistening subtleties of their musculature. The sharp receding lines of the papal palaces frame the view but also guide beholders toward the statues. Through the combination of word and image, Piranesi demonstrates the visual and historical impact of both ancient and modern architecture on the Quirinal hill. In the following view of the piazza, produced later in Piranesi’s career, he shows the expansion of the papal palaces and development of the square in its larger urban context. (ZL)

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

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