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

The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

Stark contrasts between light and shadow, oblique perspective, and wildly gesticulating figures imbue the scene of St. Peter’s interior with spatial depth and elevated drama. The shadows of the tall, fluted pilasters form a zebra-stripe pattern on the ground, which breaks up the space into segments and enhances the perspectival precision of the foreground. Figures seem perfectly positioned, as though on a grid, reflecting the classically ordered architecture of the nave. Indeed, Piranesi dwarfs the famous baldachin of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) in the crossing to make the interior appear larger. By using two perspectives for the foreground and background, Piranesi lengthens the height of the center, such that only a sliver of Michelangelo’s soaring dome can be glimpsed. Gesturing figures (seen in details 1-3 in the gallery below) additionally draw the eye upward to the ornate architectural ornamentation that overwhelms the eye almost as much as the vastness of the space. There is a notable difference in the definition of the shadows in the foreground, particularly in the dark hue of the arches and robust barrel vault, created by deep incisions into the copperplate. These are visible in the clear repetition of long solid rectilinear lines of the architrave, pilasters, and interior floor, revealing Piranesi’s etching technique. In contrast, sketchy, almost painterly strokes suffuse the apse with a soft light. The side chapels are depicted in the same way, with shallow barely etched lines. With just a few strokes, figures almost disappear into the light, creating a sense of profound depth (see details 4-6 in the gallery below).
Piranesi puts the full range and visual impact of the etching medium on display, especially when compared to the flatness of this view of St. Peter’s by contemporary vedutista Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765). The visual emphasis of Piranesi’s engraving is reinforced by the lack of annotations both in this and in the following view. Etching itself could be considered an additional subject in these views, in which the artist plays with the drama of light, shadow, and depth. (ZL)

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

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