In this image, a ruined and precarious entranceway serves as an irregular, jagged frame for a crumbling colonnade. The deep gashes of Piranesi’s etching needle echo those along the severed edges of this ancient remnant. Vines intermingle with gouges in the tufa, which is depicted in almost luminous detail. This structure, which here seems to be on the verge of collapse, no longer exists today. The site is part of the Archaeological Park of the Ancient Appian Way, about 10 km southeast of central Rome, mid-way between Rome and, as Piranesi notes in his caption, Frascati. The Villa of which it was a part was in fact the Villa dei Sette Bassi, one of the largest suburban villas in ancient Rome. Later deemed an entrance door, this structure is not in fact a cryptoportico (a semi-underground passageway whose vaulting supports above-ground structures). In his short volume Di due Spelonche dei ornate dagli Antichi alla Riva del Lago Albano (1762), Piranesi depicts a cryptoportico in two views below: the first is a close-up or large demonstration of the structure labelled “C” in the second, broader view.
This image from the Vedute di Roma draws our eyes along an orderly procession of ruined supports towards a distant vanishing point. As if to direct us to look this way, a staffage figure gestures with both arms towards the vanishing point. His position and gesture suggest those of the courtly figures who often populate the foreground of early modern maps that are drawn from an oblique aerial perspective, such as the Braun-Hogenberg map of Rome below.
In Piranesi’s view, though, the gesture points not to the glories, whether past or present, of Rome’s urban center, but to the crumbling remains of a suburban villas. Many of the structures on this site are today in poor condition, which is partly due to bombing during WWII (by which time this structure had already collapsed [Hind 60]) but also to inferior building materials. The crumbling, precarious gate could cast the figure’s somewhat cavalier gesture as, on one hand, an expression of the ennobling attitude to ancient ruins that Piranesi and his audience certainly held or, on the other, an ironic approach to architectural decay. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.