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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Exterior of the Grand St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican

At first glance, this exterior view represents a wholly modern view of St. Peter’s. The neatly etched contemporary buildings and magnificently dressed tourists look up and gesture in awe at St. Peter’s, drawing the eye toward its instantly recognizable soaring dome, whose architecture, Piranesi notes in the title, was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti. According to Piranesi’s earliest print catalogues, this engraving appeared in the original series of three plates depicting the Vatican in the Vedute di Roma. These early views of the Vatican were listed first in the catalogue, as this renowned architectural complex and pilgrimage site was a significant draw to grand tourists and potential patrons. As another part of Piranesi’s marketing strategy, he indicates in the lower right corner that these engravings could be purchased at his printshop on the “Strada Felice in the Palazzo Tomati near Trinità de Monti.” However, the protruding apse at the center of the composition and smattering of broken pieces of an ancient column in the foreground alert viewers that perhaps there is another layer of meaning in this otherwise traditional veduta. The lateral perspective is somewhat disorienting as it deviates from the more familiar frontal view. This particular side best demonstrates how St. Peter’s “was erected in part on the foundations of the Circus of Nero,” a fact Piranesi alludes to in a previous engraving showing the same side of the church, but from the front. 

While the image presents the eighteenth-century Rome of the Grand Tour, the text in the key reveals the ancient history of the site. In step with a more archeological print, the annotations document the transformation of the space from the Circus of Nero, to the site of St. Peter’s martyrdom and tomb, to the current architectural layout of the Vatican complex. Though the ruins of the Circus were barely visible during Piranesi’s time, he still describes the architectural phases of the area in great detail. He notes in annotation “2” that “near the Sacristy the Obelisk emerged from the earth still standing, which can now be seen in the Piazza of St. Peter’s, and was at the center of the aforementioned Circus.” Similarly, he documents the materials and original use of the broken columns in the foreground in annotation “5”: “Ruins of the Columns of Granite and Parian Marble, that held up the Septizodium demolished by Sixtus V.” The visual and verbal description of “two historical moments, the present and the carefully reconstructed past” comprises the framework “by which the archeological illustration is achieved” (Dixon 2005, 115-16). Even in his earlier engravings in the Vedute di Roma, which ostensibly adhered most to the genre of the veduta, Piranesi’s representation of time and architectural history was archeological in nature. (ZL)

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

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