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 (2 of 2)

In contrast to the previous aerial view, this second etching of the Piazza Navona allows beholders to experience the square up close. The jarring shift in perspective from above to below emphasizes a more visceral, and particularly visual, encounter with the Fontana del Moro and the people surrounding it. By substantially lowering the viewpoint, Piranesi calls attention to the act of looking and the print medium’s capacity to create new ways of experiencing architecture. Two figures in the foreground thematize and guide beholders to see the piazza. They occupy a position in the margins, entering the image from the bottom border of the composition, but it is also from this vantage point that the entirety of the space can be seen. The man at the lower edge with his back turned serves as a proxy for viewers. At once, viewers are distant observers and active participants in the life of the piazza. In the far left an older man also gestures to the fountain, as if to direct viewers to enjoy the variety of its aesthetic elements and abundant flow of water. 

The movement, fluidity, and force of the water, rendered by Piranesi with the utmost precision and dynamism, perhaps relates to how fountains served as a “metaphor [for] the preoccupation with urban boundaries” (San Juan, 129).  Here, the two figures in the center foreground who wash their fruit baskets demonstrate fountains’ civic function: they supplied water to neighborhoods and were essential to the running of the weekly food market. As powerful symbols of authority, fountains were also used for courtly and religious festivals. Piranesi’s up-close depiction of the Fontana del Moro highlights the ways fountains anchored public space. Indeed, Piranesi renders the fountains with greater precision and detail than in the previous view, detailing, for example, the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the obelisk of Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. The fountain shown here takes up the foreground and the majority of the composition, whereas it is barely visible in the preceding view. Piranesi’s depiction of gushing water and bustling street life shows fountains to be marvels of modern design as well as innovations in hydraulics and engineering that reclaim the piazza for public use. 

However, Piranesi underlines the significance of fountains not only to the articulation of space, but also to the discipline of architecture. Piranesi identifies Bernini and Michelangelo as the “architects” of the two principal fountains of the piazza in the annotations of the previous view. The text of the fifth annotation additionally designates 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.” (ZL)   

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

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