Piranesi’s “Veduta dell Atrio del Portico di Ottavia” is a somewhat flat and dense composition that emphasizes the irregular, decayed surfaces of this ancient structure. This double-sided columnar porch serves as a gateway that leads to the Portico of Octavia, whose interior is depicted in the following view. Visible on the architrave, the inscription explains the structure’s restoration under Septimius Severus and Caracalla in 203 CE after a fire; evidence of reused building materials attests to this restoration. The central structure very nearly fills the plate, with the top of the roof grazing its edge and the base leaving only a thin sliver of foreground. There is just enough space for some tourists and rubble, but not the larger accumulations of people and ruins that tend to fill the lower margins of Piranesi’s images. And yet this view forestalls our entry into an image of an atrium to a portico, a space that is essentially a gateway. Rather than being drawn into the image by a sharp diagonal or distant vanishing point, as viewers are when facing many of Piranesi’s other views, we are here confronted with a series of surfaces that almost seem, despite the use of two-point perspective and the varied shading of the interior, to be on the same visual plane.
Sabrina Ferri has noted that ruins, a fundamentally “a deictic presence,” point to “what is not there—to what is hidden, forgotten and lost” (98). In his Campus Martius volume, Piranesi imagines this modern structure, which is here “an architectural palimpsest,” as an unaltered ruin without any modern additions (Pinto 2012, 112). The visual composition and human population of this scene emphasize the present, with the ancient atrium nearly swallowed by the adjacent Sant’ Angelo in Pescaria, which he identifies in his annotations. He also points, in the third annotation, to the roof, where he draws our attention to details that are not visible in this image—“Tavoloni di marmo, che coprivano l’Atrio, sopra cadaun de’quali si scorge in piede un pezzo di marmo intagliato di un’Aquila in basso rilevo.” Elsewhere, though, Piranesi makes these details visible. Along with reconstructed plans, imaginative renderings, and other studies, the fourth volume of his Antichità Romane, which was aimed, unlike the Vedute di Roma, at antiquarians more than tourists, includes .His sustained attention in that antiquarian work to imagining the past states and details of this structure, positioning it against a vacant terrain and exposing its buried base layers seems to be at odds with the contemporaneity of this image. With this view, Piranesi limits our visual access to the details of this ancient structure and conveys its crowded, cramped position within the modern city. His annotation, though, reinterprets the deictic feature of ruins themselves through the genre of the annotated view in order to point indexically to what cannot be seen. This image, taken together with those from Antichità Romane, demonstrates his twinned interests in, first, the accurate and informative depiction of contemporary reality that the genre of the veduta affords and, second, the imaginative potential that architectural illustration and reconstruction allow. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.