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

The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of the Basilica of St. Peter's in the Vatican, near the Tribune

Parallel to the exterior views of St. Peter’s, Piranesi shifts the viewpoint from an aerial perspective to a close-up, an editorial strategy that organizes the two volumes of the Views of Rome. Here, viewers encounter first-hand Bernini’s famous baldacchino, which marks St. Peter’s tomb and the high altar with the papal throne. The structure’s Solomonic twisted columns and lavish canopy studded with the Barberini coat of arms, triumphant angels, and fanciful volutes, frame the gilded altar and reflect the baroque architecture and ornate, almost lifelike, sculptures in the transept. 

While the baldacchino is the central architectural element in the print, it is curious that Piranesi makes no mention of it in any of the prints depicting St. Peter’s. He does mention it, however, in this view of the Pantheon’s portico. In the textual key, Piranesi recounts the scandalous details of Pope Urban VIII’s stripping and melting down of the Pantheon’s bronze coffers in order to construct the “confessionale,” or St. Peter’s tomb, signaled in the engraving by the oblong balustrade and descending staircase in front of the baldacchino. The diagonal from the burst of light from the right also draws the eye toward the center of the transept and high altar, which would have been the point of arrival for tourists or pilgrims to the Basilica. However, the lighting effects also have a disorienting effect in this view, as they do in the previous engraving.

The dark oblique shadow in the foreground, combined with the perspective from above, blocks access to the space and posits viewers as distant observers rather than participants in the tourist itinerary the view ostensibly proposes to recreate. The lighting effects create a sense of stillness, a superficial order reinforced by the regimented movement of people that fit into established social types—monks, clerics, high-ranking tourists, noble ladies, beggars, and pilgrims in prayer (San Juan 67). As types they exist outside of “lived time” (San Juan 142-3); in other words, the print could represent any day in mid-eighteenth-century Rome. The sense of timelessness simultaneously reveals the contrast between the order imposed by the print and the social tensions, disorder, and interactions that the print suggests with the few dramatically gesturing and sketchy figures. Piranesi’s representation of time greatly contrasts with that in the views of St. Peter’s made by his contemporaries, such as Giuseppe Vasi. 

The views above by Vasi and Piranesi’s son Francesco show specific moments in time. Vasi dedicated the print to Pope Pius VI for the celebration of the Jubilee in 1775. Francesco’s engraving, designed by Louis Jean Desprez, uses dramatic lighting effects to show the Illumination of the Cross. The perspective and throngs of visitors place viewers more directly in the scene, as though they are also experiencing this sacred moment. These views harken back to the established traditional of processional prints that emphasize St. Peter’s as a site of pilgrimage and collective participation. Piranesi obliquely refers to these established pictorial vocabularies but also emphasizes the architectural environment and his authorship. Other than the baldacchino, what catches our eye is the caption in the center, almost equally illuminated as the cross, which shows Piranesi’s title and signature. His visual strategies, similar to those employed in the previous print, call attention to the medium of etching and Piranesi’s hand in mediating our view of this famous site. (ZL)

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

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