This page was created by Diem Dao.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the famous Vatican Basilica with its spacious Portico and adjacent Piazza

The Vatican is arguably one of the most well-known and culturally significant spaces in Rome: its architecture not only promoted the religious, historical, and artistic authority of the papacy, and Rome by extension, but also defined the city’s very topography. This immense and incredibly detailed aerial view of the entirety of this “famous [insigne]” and “spacious [ampio]” architectural complex serves as a fitting introduction to Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma. Piranesi dedicated six individual engravings to the Vatican, with its sprawling piazza, arcade designed by Bernini, and St. Peter’s Basilica, the most of any one monument in the series.  To Piranesi “no piazza provided a greater challenge than that of St. Peter’s” (1988, Wilton-Ely, 30). Indeed, it was considerably “beyond the scope of the smaller veduta,” requiring both the severe manipulation of perspective and large folio format that characterizes Piranesi’s style (1988, Wilton-Ely, 30). 

Throughout the Views of Rome Piranesi employs a series of perspectival shifts across multiple prints which propose different experiences of and encounters with the same architectural space. In the present six views of the Vatican beholders move from the perspective of a disembodied eye in the panoramic view, to experiencing the dynamic hustle and bustle of the piazza in several close-ups, to inside St. Peter’s itself in the interior views. Combined with the annotations, the aerial perspective provides an overview of the space, orienting tourists to significant sites of historical and architectural interest; for example, the loggias painted by Renaissance artist Raphael (annotation “2”). Piranesi’s approach attempts to catalogue and contain both St. Peter’s and its urban expanse from an impossible viewpoint, yet it is precisely these elements that fully orient viewers within the architectural space. In this way, this view functions much like a map. In fact, the bird’s eye view, numbered index, and descriptive annotations, are visual elements that borrow from the cartographic tradition (2002, Dixon, 472-3; 2013, Maier), as well as city views and broadsides. The gallery below features some of the more notable examples by such printmakers and cartographers as Antonio Tempesta, Giuseppe Falda, Giuseppe Vasi, Giovanni Battista Nolli, with whom Piranesi would have been familiar and in some cases even collaborated. 

Similar to the examples above, Piranesi employs the aerial perspective in his own maps of Rome, such as the one in this volume (the previous engraving in fact), as well as his other cartographic projections. The Vatican in these prints is not a “walkable space,” but inscribes a certain legibility on the landscape (2001, San Juan, 89-90). Yet, by expanding the visible topography around the Vatican to the ancient walls of the city (annotation “3”), as well as linking multiple views of the same monument across annotations and perspectives, the Vatican becomes a virtually and architecturally accessible space through which viewers can travel.  (ZL)

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here

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