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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Piazza Navona above the Ruins of the Circus of Domitian (1 of 2)

Piranesi depicts the famous Piazza Navona in this and the following etching in the Vedute di Roma. While the titles of both emphasize the piazza’s ancient foundations, the Circo Agonale or Circus of Domitian, the clear focus of these views is modern Rome. The two prints are from opposite points of the square, allowing for a panoramic all-encompassing view of the piazza. Here, through elevated perspective and the use of scena per angolo, beholders can take in every detail: from the noble palaces, churches, and fountains to makeshift stages, market stalls, and horse-drawn carriages. We see actors as pulcinelli giving spontaneous performances, bandi posted with the latest news and ordinances, merchants setting up their wares, healers, beggars, monks, tourists, and dogs moving throughout the piazza. Piranesi’s rich portrayal of daily life in the piazza shows how this space, with permeable boundaries that authorities including city officials, the papacy, and nobility repeatedly attempted to control, was “claimed by diverse publics” (San Juan 189, 196). 

In contrast to many printed views of the time, which show a more sanitized and idealized version of the piazza, Piranesi makes the tension between order and disorder visible. The uninhibited circulation of people and goods in the piazza contrasts with the neat and linear rows of noble palaces, which are identified in the numbered key below the image. The surrounding architecture not only frames the space but also serves to clarify social hierarchies, in particular the imprint of the Pamphili family on the piazza. His annotations identify their private residence, the Villa Pamphili (2), in addition to the baroque church of Sant’Agnese (1) and Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (3) commissioned by Pope Innocent X, Giovanni Battista Pamphili (1574-1655). Pamphili’s election to the papacy in 1644 provided an opportunity to transform the piazza from a space of private ownership into one of papal authority. The other annotations further delimit the piazza’s boundaries, with San Giacomo degli Spagnoli, the church for the Spanish community in Rome, on the left and Fontana del Moro at the south end of the square. These palaces, churches, and fountains compress the piazza’s vast dimensions into a coherent and enclosed space. 

In this space where the public and the papacy vie for authority, Piranesi underlines the significance of fountains not only to the articulation of space, but also to the discipline of architecture. His annotations identify Bernini and Michelangelo as the “architects” of the two principal fountains of the piazza and designate the Fontana del Moro itself as a work of architecture: “Fontana, Architettura di Michelangelo.” Though it is now attributed to Giacomo della Porta, there was some debate about its author during Piranesi’s time. More important than the attribution itself is Piranesi’s insistence on assigning authorship to artists, particularly modern artists. With these annotations, he promotes the status of the architect as a designer, engineer, and inventor, clarifying both early modern conceptions of architecture and Piranesi’s self-identification as an “architect.”

Yet, the variety of figures that Piranesi includes reminds us that this order is superficial. For example, at the outer edges of the square a slew of merchants display their wares on tables near an illuminated alleyway. Through swirling and undefined lines, their merchandise spills over into the piazza, blurring the boundaries between both private and public and the square and the rest of the city. It is difficult to distinguish the established or registered merchants from the transient and unauthorized sellers, an aspect of public space that officials tried but often failed to regulate. Piranesi blurs these boundaries, both here in and in the following view of the piazza. (ZL)

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

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