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The Digital Piranesi

Views of Rome Designed and Engraved by Giambattista Piranesi Venetian Architect

Along with the elaborate frontispiece to the second volume of the Vedute di Roma, this illustrated title page was produced at the outset of Piranesi’s creation of the 133 etchings that constitute the series. (His son Francesco engraved an additional two that are included in the Opere.) The dates of composition proposed first by Arthur Hind (1748) or more recently by Roberta Battaglia (1745) both confirm that Piranesi conceived of the vedute, which are often encountered and studied individually, as a series (Bevilacqua 2007, 55). These two introductory images, this title page and the second volume’s frontispiece, can be understood to guide our experiences of the Vedute di Roma as either individual images or a sequential series.

The frontispiece to the second volume of the Vedute di Roma suggests architectural spaces that seem to stretch into the distance. This title page instead restricts depth and emphasizes surface with the foreshortened middle-ground, only slightly elevated letters, and the prominence of architectural ornament. Malcom Campbell has noted the details of this image that echo Piranesi’s other subjects, particularly the bucranium on the prominent urn that resembles Piranesi’s view of the Temple of Jupiter Tonans and the sculptural works in his Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi, tripodi, lucerne et ornamenti antichi  (578). In those works, and his Osservazioni sopra la Lettre de Monsieur Mariette, Piranesi expresses what was in the eighteenth century uncommon praise for the value of architectural ornament. The bucranium, or ox’s skull, commonly found on altars or tombs, directly confronts a viewer’s gaze with the suggestion of funereal decay. By including the bucranium, which was traditionally a feature of the Doric order, alongside the Corinthian capital, Piranesi suggests the Roman flexibility with mingling architectural orders.

Water pours from the smaller urn on the left and spills over the edge of a shallow pool; foliage mingles with architectural fragments in the deeply-etched foreground and climbs over the slab on the right. The sharp contrast between the dark inking of the foreground and the faint lines of the title is somewhat at odds with the narrow physical space that separates them. The image quite literally foregrounds architectural ornament, juxtaposed orders, and natural abundance. Architectural fragments litter the foreground of numerous images in the series and often impede viewers’ imaginative entry into the scenes they depict, suspending them at the lower margin of the image (Verschaffel). Here, though, Piranesi’s composition creates further impediments. Viewers are drawn more quickly to the large and deeply-etched urn than they are impeded by the Corinthian capital and base. But the urn that draws a viewer’s attention also challenges a potential reader’s comprehension. In its composition and shading, the image compliments issues of surface and depth with questions of reading and looking.

From the sixteenth century, illustrated title pages often presented titles as monumental inscriptions on an architectural surface; by positioning his title and authorship within a scene of natural abundance and architectural ruin, Piranesi’s image echoes but also adapts this common design (Nevola 2009, 129). Like many of the subjects depicted in this series, the words in this image are presented at an oblique angle. On a pale stone surface that is framed by egg and dart embellishment on its top, faint clouds on the right, and shallow gashes on the left appears the text “VEDVTE DI ROMA DISEGNATE ED INCISE DA GIAMBATTISTA P[…]IRANESI ARCHITETTO V[ENEZ]IANO.” A deep gouge interrupts the “D” in “DI,” and airy foliage obscures the letters that are cast in shadow on the left. Piranesi’s latinizing of the Italian word “vedvte” in Roman capitals combines past and present in the orthography of a single word. Notably, “PIRANESI” is awkwardly spaced around the urn so that each of its letters can be read while “V…IANO” leaves us to supply the missing letters to identify his birthplace of Venice—the partial “Z” is in fact reversed, perhaps an error resulting from the reverse-writing that engraving requires. (It is worth noting that the letter “Z” is not part of the ancient Latin alphabet was incorporated to account for Greek spellings. Perhaps, with this letter, Piranesi nods to this history or emphasizes the vernacularity of the word “Veneziano.”) Details of this sort are common in Piranesi’s title pages, and it is their effects rather than their causes or frequency that warrant attention.

With its awkward spacing of Piranesi’s name, the text not only shatters the illusion that this is a “real” inscription but also tests a reader’s comprehension by interrupting his attribution of authorship with ornament. In some of his other title pages, staffage figures gesture before texts that they seem to be reading or discussing, as the close-ups in this gallery show.
In this image, rather than dramatizing the act of reading, Piranesi slightly impedes comprehension. Reading’s visual elements here require that we look, observe, and reassess. We must look to the left and right of the urn, fill in gaps, (un)consciously correct the “Z,” and ultimately negotiate between the prominent decorative urn and the less defined letters. While similar issues appear in his other title pages, the visual composition of this verbal text is an apt an introduction to a series of views whose annotations frequently summon simultaneous acts of reading and looking.

As an inscription, albeit imaginary, that is engraved in a copper plate, this text suggests a visual pun common to the genre of the ruins print (Stewart 158) and calls attention to the various media Piranesi represents and employs (Minor 2015, 87, 93). In the context of typography, Johanna Drucker has shown that writing has visual elements whose cultural and theoretical significance has historically been overlooked (1994). Looking closely reveals that these roughly-etched letters appear slightly raised rather than carved into the surface. Their visual details make them difficult to place within the development of Piranesi’s lettering style that Armando Petrucci has outlined. Title pages of Piranesi’s early works, such as the Carceri (first state 1750) and the Prima Parte  (1743) include flat capitals rendered with delicate lines (images 1-2 in the gallery below). Around 1750, Piranesi develops a new lettering style that is characterized by a combination of lines etched in different thicknesses and inspired by his own direct study of monumental epigraphy. What Petrucci calls the “littera piranesiana,” in which monumental capital letters seem to be sculpted in relief, appears in the title pages of the Antichità Romane of 1756 and Lapides Capitolini of 1762 (images 3-6 in the gallery below) and represents a “move away from the accurate reconstruction of the past, re-created through his technical mastery, to a global idealization of the documentary detail within a vaster framework” (67).
By contrast to both of these styles, the letters in this title page are three-dimensional and raised above their surface, but they are constituted by widely spaced, irregular, sometimes wavy lines that resemble the patterns of plants, water, or clouds more than those with which he renders stone or metal, particularly in his later monumental title pages. A departure from the notion of living stone that his views vividly invoke (Zorach 118), this lettering style hints at the instability of the city’s crumbling structures and the natural forces that threaten them.
The attention Piranesi gives elsewhere in the Vedute di Roma to inscriptions on classical monuments does not inform the marks that constitute these letters. Instead, these letters are made of etched lines that resemble those which depict the natural forces—foliage, water—in the image and nod, it seems, to the vines that creep into and hang from many of the ancient structures in this volume’s pages. The attention in this image to the visual elements of reading, the value of ornament, and the conflict between natural growth and architectural structures is an apt introduction to the pages of Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma. (JB)

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

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