This page was created by Diem Dao.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

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 façade and dome, St. Peter’s is here presented from the heart of the square, as if, moving from the previous view, Piranesi’s beholders have 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 at this religious and artistic site. The people seem to be the subject of the print as much as the architecture, bestowing a sense of theatricality. Indeed, referencing the stage designs by the Bibiena family of artists, architects, and designers, John Wilton-Ely remarks that this perspective seems to be that of a “royal box in a Bibiena theater” (1978, 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, labeled, 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" (ibid). 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 by Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) that give the space its recognizable shape. These architectural interventions, of particular interest to grand tourists, are described in the annotations as a direct result and expression of papal authority: the first annotation points out the Pontifical Palace and the fact that it was built by Sixtus V; next are the Loggias of Julius II, noted for being designed by Bramante Lazzari (1444-1514) and painted by Raphael; third is the obelisk, which was erected by Sixtus V. The background adheres most to the classic style of the genre of the veduta, as practiced by Giuseppe Vasi and others. Yet, for all the traditional elements of the composition, description, and visual detail, what strikes the eye most is the wildly elaborate horse-drawn carriage in the foreground.
Scholars have traced 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 d’adornare i cammini. Even in this early traditional view, one of the first he produced for the series in 1748, Piranesi conspicuously inserts his promotion of ornament. 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 that follows in this volume. (ZL)


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

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