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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Basilica San Paolo fuori le Mura, built by Constantine the Great

San Paolo fuori le Mura was built on the site of Paul’s tomb, which in ancient times was outside the Aurelian walls—hence the name “St. Paul Outside the Walls.” The building was, along with St. Peter’s, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four major papal Basilicas in Rome, the most ancient Christian sites in the city and must-see stops on the pilgrimage and tourist routes throughout the early modern period. Prints of these Basilicas were highly marketable, and they are in fact listed first in Piranesi’s catalogue of the Vedute di Roma. Perhaps as an advertising strategy, Piranesi includes multiple prints of the exterior and interior for each of the major papal Basilicas. 

The church sharply recedes into the background at a highly oblique angle in order to emphasize the vast width of the façade and portico, consisting of seven monumental arches. Moreover, the borders of the plate can hardly contain the height of church—the right corner of the topmost pediment is cut off. Such massive dimensions accommodate Piranesi’s extensive and detailed annotations, which detail the over thousand-year history of additions and restorations to the exterior. Rebuilt, he notes, in 1725, the portico originally included nine arches, making the ancient basilica even wider than the current restoration in the print above. The robust construction of the ancient foundations, seen in the brick in the lateral façade on the right, contrasts with the rich ornament of subsequent periods, such as the medieval mosaics of the four evangelists in the upper frontal façade.

What in fact is most interesting to Piranesi is the unadorned wall on the left side of the church, which most clearly shows its original architecture. The ruin of the wall juts into the foreground in order to capture the attention of viewers. Piranesi employs this visual strategy in his other views, such as of the Temple of Faustina and the Forum of Nerva, in which construction methods are foregrounded by ruins rather than the ostensibly more visually appealing main building. The gesturing figures on the right also draw the eye upward to take in all the hidden details of the brick, which display the “Lateral rusticated blocks of the Basilica that show the work on the exterior by the aforementioned Emperor.” He also notes how the windows and ornaments were reworked by successive emperors, but later “restored” by the Popes. Piranesi’s interest in these archeological details gives scholars an invaluable window into the history and appearance of this site, which has since been destroyed and completely rebuilt. (ZL)

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

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