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

The Digital Piranesi

Column of Trajan

With its low vantage point and subtle distinctions in shading, this image divides the ancient and modern city. As a triumphal monument, Trajan’s column embodies military power and imperial conquest, its narrative frieze representing scenes of the Dacian Wars that concluded with decisive Roman victory. Piranesi’s careful shading of the column’s surface in this image is expanded to a colossal scale in Trofeo o sia Magnifica Colonna (c. 1774), which includes meticulous studies and recreations of Trajan’s Column and the Column of Marcus Aurelius. To ensure the accuracy of his drawings, he had suggested that he be suspended in a basked from the top of the column, a plan that probably never materialized. In this image, stairs lead down from the contemporary street to Rome’s ancient ground level, where heavily-shadowed and overgrown rubble contrast with the smooth, sunlit cupola and the neighboring residences with lowered shades. Piranesi’s annotations follow the priorities of the image: the first, which appears twice to indicate the wall and stairs, erected under Sixtus V; the second points to Chiesa del nome di Maria (the Church of the Most Holy Name of Mary), completed just seven years before this print in 1751, and the mostly obscured Palazzo Bonelli (today Palazzo Valentini). Amplifying the attention devoted to the visual detail and immediate setting of the column, Piranesi places a number of grand tourists around its base. In many of Piranesi’s views of ancient ruins, the foreground is covered with architectural rubble that effectively limits a viewer’s entry into the central image (Verschaffel), and people engage in conversation, commerce, and repose but usually seem inattentive to the monuments around them. Well-dressed tourists, though, occasionally betray enraptured engagement through their posture and stance. In another engraving, one viewer examines the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina through a telescope. Here, while one tourist enjoys the panoramic view from the top of the column, a more vividly defined gentleman stands on the stairs and, with his head back and his arms up, suggests a relationship of spectatorship and awe between modern man and ancient architecture. His posture invites viewers to share this awe, after crossing the foreground’s boundary of architectural rubble. Constructed to commemorate Rome’s overpowering of ancient people from the North, Trajan’s Column is here presented as a monument that itself overpowers tourists from Northern Europe with its antiquity and magnificence. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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