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 how the print medium could create new ways of experiencing architecture, even of the same space. Two figures in the foreground in particular thematize and guide the way beholders ‘see’ the piazza. The man at the lower edge with his back turned serves as a type of proxy for viewers. 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. At once viewers are distant observers and active participants in the life of the piazza. At 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, two figures in the center foreground wash their baskets for selling or carrying produce, showing how fountains of the Piazza Navona performed a civic function: they supplied water to the neighborhood and were essential to the running of the weekly food market.  In this capacity, they occupy the realm of public space. The fountains were also used for courtly and religious festivals, and as described in the previous essay, powerful symbols of authority. By portraying the Fontana del Moro up close, Piranesi highlights the significant ways fountains anchored public space and shaped the piazza as a site of social and economic exchange. Indeed, Piranesi renders the fountains with greater precision and detail than in the previous view. For example, the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the obelisk of Bernini’s Fontana dei quattro fiumi are visible.  The fountain shown here takes up the foreground and the majority of the composition, whereas it is barely visible in the preceding view. Depicted with an almost life-like quality, the streams of water gush from fantastical sea creatures, nymphs, and lions. Through the inventive combination of sculpture, engineering, and hydraulics the fountain provides theatrical spectacle, aesthetic pleasure, aural delight, as well as utilitarian services for the benefit of the public. In this sense, fountains embody both form and function. They represent marvels of modern design and 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 the 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 annotation for the Fontana del Moro additionally designates the fountain itself as a work of architecture: “5. Fountain, Architecture by Michelangelo [5. Fontana, Architettura di Michelangelo].” Though the Fontana del Moro has now been 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 in the Vedute di Roma. The Trevi Fountain by Nicola Salvi, as well as for the façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore by Ferdinando Fuga are only some examples of this practice. The use of “architecture” as a discipline and authorial role in Piranesi’s annotations asserts that multiple arts fall under the realm of architecture and promote the status of the architect as a designer, engineer, and inventor. Piranesi’s annotations contribute to our understanding of early modern conceptions of architecture, and how Piranesi conceived of himself 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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