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

The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of the Atrium of the Portico of Octavia

As the last view in this volume of the Didot edition of the Views of Rome, this image depicts a boundary of the ancient city and marks the boundary of the book. Continuing with the same subject as the previous view, this print takes viewers inside the atrium of the Portico of Octavia. Hind singles out this image as “one of the most dignified” of the Views of Rome, noting in particular that its subject nearly fills the foreground (16). In this and the previous view, both produced in 1760, Piranesi indeed fills the plate with this structure, casts its crumbling texture in bold chiaroscuro, and conveys its cramped position in modern Rome and, specifically, the Jewish Ghetto. Here, sunlight throws the protruding details of the façade into sharp relief and illuminates the two arches that loom over the busy street in the center of the image. While the previous image is somewhat flat, and limited in movement, this view of the atrium invites glances in many directions.

In keeping with the assumptions of the veduta genre, Piranesi dutifully depicts the contemporary state of this ancient structure. As noted in the essay accompanying the previous image, he depicts and reimagines the portico’s past state in several plates in his Roman AntiquitiesHe also includes its appearance on one of the extant fragments of the Severan Marble plan in both the Plan of Rome from Roman Antiquities and a study in his volume on the Campus Martius. In both cases, he supplies annotations that detail its past: the first column constructed of marble in Rome, the restorations after a fire, and statues discovered among fragments that were later installed in the Campidoglio Palace. In the close-ups below, the remaining text that reads “CUSOCTAVIAEE” (the initial “PORTI” is lost) indicates its position. In this image, Piranesi’s annotations invite us into the past in a similar if condensed way before jolting us into the present.With the first annotations (“1” is repeated), readers are—as viewers—urged to look up, at the two most visible annotations in the image and the sculptural detail of the portico. Other annotations (2 and 3), though, are barely visible against the varied textures behind them. With his first and repeated annotation, Piranesi seems to invite us to look away from the street life and fish market in the deeply shaded foreground, to the dramatically shaded details of the top of the portico. In doing so, he also urges us to look away from contemporary reality—which is, after all, the traditional content of the veduta genre—and to envision the structure’s history of damage and restoration.  His second annotation describes the portico’s restoration under Septimius Severus after it was damaged by a fire. When the final annotation does nod to the structure’s present conditions, the syntax suggests defeated resignation when he concludes by describing the “… lati del Portico: oggi Pescaria” […walls of the Portico: today a Fish Market]. It is worth noting that selling fish was one of the few occupations open to Roman Jews and that this area, the Jewish Ghetto, was the site of overcrowding, poverty, frequent flooding, and, in the previous century, an epidemic. Once a site of magnificence: today, Piranesi pivots, a lowly fishmarket. At the end of this volume of the Views of Rome, this image of a gateway suggests the constant oscillation in Piranesi’s vedute between the past and the present, with his own interpretation of the genre’s customary visual detail and verbal information often serving as a gateway between the two. (JB)

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

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