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

The Digital Piranesi

View of St. Peter's Square and Basilica

In this third and final view of the exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica, Piranesi’s construction and presentation of the space of the piazza draw on features of theatrical design to reveal tensions of the urban environment and its printed representation. Piranesi takes viewers even further into the piazza to directly experience the grandiose space before them. At the same time, the scena per angolo makes the sprawling square somewhat constrained. The oblique and shallow perspective employed here positions the piazza as a kind of stage and was in fact characteristic of eighteenth-century theater prints. Piranesi often adapted their compositions in order to advertise his virtuosity in perspective and architectural invention, as well as to heighten the drama of a particular scene (Dixon 2016, 250). Piranesi’s interpretation of the set design by Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736) for the opera Teodosio il Giovane is strikingly similar to the print above.

While the perspective is even further extended in the drawing, Piranesi captures the same frenetic tension in the relationship between the actors in the foreground and the architectural features of the piazza. In the print, the details of the central obelisk, fountain, and curve of the colonnade are fleshed out with rectilinear lines and harsh shadows. Yet, the fountains retain the sketchy quality of the drawing in capturing the movement of the water, which seems to rupture the controlled precision of the built environment. The curves and arcs of the water are depicted in white patches, exceeding the lines that articulate them, yet they are confined to the circular contour of the basin. Much like the print itself, the fountains embody the tension between nature and artifice (San Juan 139). In a parallel manner, the undulating and illusionistic banderole on the bottom right interrupts the immersive space of the piazza, calling attention to the status of the engraving as a material and visual object, as well as to Piranesi’s status as the author of its environment. In addition to bearing the title of the print, the scroll performs Piranesi’s authorship by inscribing upon it “Made by Cavalier Piranesi.” To the immediate left of the scroll, a figure in typical eighteenth-century garb poses theatrically, as if to introduce the print to viewers. His posture and gesture are reminiscent of the well-known print of the famous cicerone Giovanni Alto by Francesco Villamena (1564-1624).As a go-between, this figure mediates the experience of the piazza and its grandeur while also revealing the “ephemeral and chaotic aspects of everyday life, including its laborers, beggars, pilgrims, soldiers, sellers, and loiterers” (San Juan 88). Indeed, such figures are shown in the foreground of the print, and their effusive gestures presume “a fascination with urban diversity” not only of the city, but also of the theatrical stage. (ZL)  

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

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