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

The Digital Piranesi

View of St. Peter’s Basilica, and Piazza in the Vatican


With its sweeping colonnaded arms, central obelisk, towering palaces, and classical facade and dome of St. Peter’s, Piranesi takes beholders from an aerial view into the heart of the square, as though they have too just descended from one of the ornate carriages in the foreground. The dynamism created by this flurry of activity – the roiling, just tread-upon dirt, horses in mid-trot, travelers satiating their thirst at the fountain, endless crowds of visitors approaching the church – gives a sense of the booming tourism on this religious and artistic site, much as it is today. The people seem to be the subject of the print as much as the architecture, bestowing a sense of theatricality. Indeed, John Wilton-Ely remarks that this perspective seems to be of a "royal box in a Bibiena theater" (1978, Wilton-Ely, 30).  

Yet this vivacious detail in the foreground gives way to a contained and ordered architectural backdrop, in which the major buildings are neatly identified, labelled, and described in the textual key. Furthermore, the recently installed geometric design of the piazza floor in the center, divides the composition in half from the unaltered dirt road in the foreground. Wilton-Ely points to the contrast between the two areas of the composition as “on the one hand, dryly topographical, on the other richly pictorial" (1978, Wilton-Ely, 30). Indeed, the architecture of St. Peter's and the Pontifical Palace is crisp and linear. The darkly hatched obelisk pulls the eye into the center of the composition and further emphasizes symmetry, order, and proportion of the Renaissance and Baroque interventions in the square by Bramante and Bernini that give the space its recognizable shape. These architectural interventions are described in the annotations as a direct result and expression of papal authority: “1. Pontifical Palace built by Sixtus V. 2. Loggias of Julius II, architecture by Bramante Lazzari, and painted by Raphael of Urbino. 3. Spire [obelisk] erected by Sixtus V.” These are the sites of interest and kinds of information that would appeal to grand tourists. It is interesting that the background adheres most to the classic style of the view, practiced by Vasi among other vedutisti of the time. Yet, for all the traditional elements of the composition, description, and visual detail, what strikes the eye most is perhaps the wildly elaborate horse-drawn carriage in the foreground.
Scholars have identified the decorative motifs in this carriage - wings, medallions, crowns, and shells - to one of Piranesi’s sketches of a ceremonial gondola held at the Morgan Library (see details above).  Typical of the ornate Rococco style, the design was popular in decorative objects and furniture. In fact, Piranesi recycled these elements in his other works including the Grotteschi and his work dedicated to interior design, the Diverse maniere. Even in this early ore traditional view, Piranesi inserts himself, and his promotion of ornament, front and center. The carriage also reflects the baroque aesthetic of the square and overall theatrical effect of the scene, the drama of which is heightened in the third print of the Vatican exterior. 

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

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