This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Palace of the Illustrious Barberini Family on the Quirinal Hill

Like a colossal mountain erupting from the ground, the imposing three-tiered façade of the Barberini palace seems to loom over all of Rome in this image. The palace’s strategic location on the Quirinal hill, in addition to its proximity to the Papal Palace, demonstrated the extensive and powerful reach of the Barberini family. In the early seventeenth century, Maffeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII) commissioned several famous architects, including Carlo Maderno, Francesco Borromini, and a very young Bernini, to design his family palace. Piranesi seldom mentions other architects in the Vedute di Roma and credits only Bernini in this image’s caption, which suggests his admiration for Bernini’s innovative yet classic design. While Bernini incorporates traditional elements of Renaissance palace architecture, such as the rusticated ground floor and symmetrical and flat tripartite façade, the grand arcades of arches and open loggia at the center anticipate the restrained opulence of the late baroque style, or barocchetto, of eighteenth-century Rome. 

The turbulent clouds in the background as well as the steep diagonals of the cornice heighten the monumentality of the façade. The church of the Capuchin monks (“4”) and the highly ornamental entrance to the palace from the piazza (“3”) are rendered in shallow lines, fading softly into the background, while the Palazzo seems to be carved out like a three-dimensional sculpture from the deep pressure of the biting of the copper plate. Atmospheric perspective creates even further depth, inviting viewers to explore the grounds and details such as the ancient inscription on the right and the secret bridge that grants privileged access to the second floor. On the left, remnants of an ancient fountain give way to the piazza below and distant landscape. While the foreground is in the deepest shadow, the sheer variety of figures, spidery trees, and broken fragments draw viewers into its dynamic action. 

Taking up almost half the length of the foreground is a large fallen obelisk. Figures stand, sit, and lean on top of it, gesture wildly, and engage actively with its massive stone blocks. By pushing the obelisk to the foreground, Piranesi places viewers in similar direct contact with the object. His sixth annotation notes that it was transferred from the Circus of Elagabalus outside the Porta Maggiore to its current location at the Barberini Palace. He renders the hieroglyphics with the utmost precision, as he does in his view of the piazza of San Giovanni in Laterano. There was also a fallen obelisk beside the Lateran, which Piranesi illustrates from two different perspectives. In these views of the church the obelisk is barely visible, requiring more work for the viewers to look closely at every detail. Here, by contrast, the Barberini obelisk is on “grand display” as it is in the map of the Campus Martius below. 

In both the view and map, Piranesi shows the obelisk broken and lying down, with the individual blocks and their hieroglyphics clearly visible. The Campus Martius map takes the obelisk out of its contemporary setting into a fantastical reimagining of the most ancient part of Rome. While Piranesi represents the current position of the obelisk accurately in the Barberini print, in the map he envisions the obelisk in its rightful, ancient, context. For his contemporaries Nolli and Vasi, who also portray this obelisk, “antiquities are of particular importance insofar as they relate to the active, lived-in part of the city” (Ceen 36). For Piranesi, by contrast, the recurring motif of the fallen obelisk conveys his antiquarian interests and fascination with the design, movement, and history of these ancient structures. (ZL)

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

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