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 it also defined the city’s very topography. This immense and incredibly detailed aerial view of the entirety of this “famous” and “spacious” architectural complex serves as a fitting introduction, after the preceding title page and map, to Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma. Piranesi dedicated six individual engravings, more than he devotes to any other monument, to the Vatican, with its sprawling piazza, arcade designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), and St. Peter’s Basilica. To Piranesi, “no piazza provided a greater challenge than that of St. Peter’s” (Wilton-Ely 1988, 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 (ibid). 

Throughout the Vedute di Roma, Piranesi employs a series of perspectival shifts across multiple prints which propose different experiences of and encounters with the same architectural space. In the six images of the Vatican that begin here, 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 the interior of St. Peter’s itself. Combined with the annotations, the aerial perspective provides an overview of the space, orienting tourists to significant sites of historical and architectural interest, such as the loggias painted by Renaissance artist Raphael (noted in 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: the bird’s eye view, numbered index, and descriptive annotations borrow from the cartographic tradition (Dixon 2002, 472-3; 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. 

Piranesi also employs the aerial perspective in his own maps of Rome as well as his other cartographic projections. His vedute do not depict the Vatican as a “walkable space” for tourists but instead inscribe a certain legibility on the urban landscape for beholders of his images (San Juan 89-90). Yet, by expanding the visible topography around the Vatican to the ancient walls of the city (noted in annotation “3”), as well as linking multiple views of the same monument across annotations and shifting perspectives, Piranesi makes the Vatican a virtually and architecturally accessible space through which his readers and viewers can travel. (ZL)

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

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