The Digital Piranesi
This page was created by Alexis Kratzer. The last update was by Jeanne Britton.
View of the Customs House in the Piazza di Pietra
In this view Piranesi recounts the storied history of eleven ancient columns, which have since been fully integrated into a modern building: the customs office, or “dogana.” These columns present an interesting case of architectural reuse and preservation. While Piranesi shows other instances of ancient ruins being adapted for contemporary use, for example in his view of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, none have the complete hybrid character of this unique structure. The title and annotations focus on the modern use and restoration of what Piranesi believed to be the columns of the Temple of Antoninus Pius. For example, the main floor served as the customs office and the upper floors as modern residences or “abitazione moderna” (labeled “4”). Details of the windows show their sills decorated with potted plants or used as a space for hanging laundry. Between the ancient columns, temporary shops pander to tourists, who patiently wait for their carriages to be assessed by the customs officers. The office oversaw duties on goods acquired and transported by land (“dogana della terra”), perhaps those purchased on the Via del Corso (labeled “7”), Rome’s premier shopping street. Piranesi reminds tourists that if their duties were not paid, there could be dire consequences. Indeed, a line of soldiers on the left stand in front of an intimidating wooden and steel gate (labeled “6”) immediately outside the offices to make potential arrests and “enforce” the law. However, the terms of the law could always be negotiated with a bribe (Holden 2014). Piranesi gives a vivid account of the modern use of the ancient temple, but the caption additionally outlines the monument’s architectural history. Piranesi begins the text by stating that the columns originally formed part of the Temple of Antoninus Pius built by Marcus Aurelius in his forum. The column of Marcus Aurelius, only a short walk away, can be seen here. Piranesi further notes in annotations “2” and “3” how the ancient architrave had been restored (“ristorato”), retaining its original form, but that the cornice has been completely redone (“rifatto”), making it “modern.” In contrast to the shallow rectilinear lines of the houses and cornice, the ancient columns, capitals, and architrave are rendered with jagged and dark lines, sharing the same mottled appearance.
The distinction Piranesi makes between “restoration” and “remaking” is especially enlightening in terms of his own artistic practice of restoring antiquities both in print and in his museum. Piranesi’s approach to restoration on paper can be seen in the view of the ruins below from the Campus Martius.
While in the Vedute di Roma ancient and modern are fused architecturally, in the Campus Martius Piranesi seeks to visually excavate the temple ruins from their successive additions. As though untouched by urban expansion, only the ancient remains are left standing: the eleven Corinthian columns (labeled “1”) and barrel-vaulted room with a coffered roof (labeled “2”). The perspective of the Campus Martius view would have been physically impossible to attain in the eighteenth century, as the columns were fully integrated into the modern structure. Piranesi allows viewers to see a past that is no longer visible. In this way, the two views, one of the past and one of the present, work together to restore the lost history of the temple. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.