Second only to the Vatican, San Giovanni in Laterano was one of the most important churches in Rome. Known as the Mater Caput Ecclesiarum, or Mother of all Churches, it was a key site on the pilgrimage route, particularly as it contained the reliquaries of the heads of Saints Peter and Paul. Descriptions and images of the four papal Basilicas were essential to illustrated guidebooks, a genre which grouped views by type rather than geography. Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma follows this feature of the guidebook but, in this view, also combined such established features of the genre with his uniquely theatrical, cartographic, and antiquarian approach.
Piranesi anticipated the constant demand for fresh images of the city’s monuments, particularly in guidebooks, by producing and reprinting multiple views of San Giovanni in Laterano. Here, through the exaggeration of two-point perspective, he highlights the key architectural features of the church and its latest additions: the newly redesigned façade by Architect Alessandro Galilei as well as the classicizing dome and lantern of the Corsini chapel (labeled “1”). He also notes that the adjacent building, once the pontifical palace built under Pope Sixtus V, now serves as a women’s conservatory (“4”), a type of religious and educational institution. Piranesi’s emphasis on the monumental façade of the Basilica and his short descriptions of the surrounding architecture in the annotations prioritize quick access to visual and historical information that would have appealed to more commercial audiences. Indeed, Piranesi’s earliest view of the Basilica, featured in the illustrated guidebook Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna disegnate e intagliate da celebri autori (1748), shares this sense of immediacy, with the foreground pushed up to the edge of the picture plane.
The brevity and objectivity of the text in both views reflect the rapid movement of the eye over the space of the composition. However, there is a greater intensity to Piranesi’s later folio veduta through the use of line, shadow, and oblique perspective. The steep diagonals and dramatic lighting effects lead viewers on a fast-paced “tonal journey” across the etching, from the deep shading of the ancient walls in the foreground (“5”) to the dramatic angle of the light hitting the façade, up toward the heavens filled with the luminous baroque statuary, finally arriving to the furthest limits of the piazza in an ethereal vision of the countryside (Wilton-Ely 1978, 32). This panoramic and immersive quality of Piranesi’s style is where this veduta strays from the traditional elements of the guidebook.
Though viewers are initially overwhelmed by Galilei’s imposing façade, Piranesi’s insistence on geographic accuracy and archeological detail invites viewers to look closer. Though barely visible in the distance, Piranesi’s shallow, almost painterly lines reveal the faint silhouette of Santa Maria Maggiore with perspectival and topographical precision. The orientation and dimensions of the church replicate the directional accuracy and measured distance of Giambattista Nolli’s groundbreaking map of Rome. As the brightness of the landscape draws our eyes to the horizon, they are pulled back by the dark shading of the wall in the foreground. It is curious that Piranesi frames this view of a modern church by circumscribing it within the ancient remains of the city walls. A further reminder of antiquity is the imaginative arrangement of fragments on the right. Uncovering the last hidden fragment, the “fallen Egyptian Obelisk” (“4”), requires an even closer look into the margins of the plate. As though inviting us on an archeological dig, Piranesi indicates the ruins of an obelisk with the slightest gradation of tone, set against the wall before the landscape behind. These hidden details speak to Piranesi’s overriding antiquarian interests, even when the primary subject of the view is a modern building (ZL).
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.