In a disorienting shift of perspective from the previous view, viewers of this image now find themselves behind the church on the opposite side of the piazza. Whereas in the previous view Piranesi draws viewers into a dramatic encounter with Alessandro Galilei’s monumental façade, here they are far removed from the Basilica and confronted instead with a towering ancient obelisk. Erected under Sixtus V, the obelisk combined with the rear façade of the Lateran palace, which Piranesi notes in the first annotation, formed one of the most iconic and sacred spaces in Rome. Yet from this aerial perspective, the palace seems diminutive and almost dilapidated with its uneven roofs and strange combination of medieval and Renaissance architectural styles. Behind the seemingly perfect neoclassical façade shown in the previous view, Piranesi reveals the chaotic flurry of activity that characterized the Roman street. Here, alongside elegant carriages, pontifical palaces, and holy relics, are merchants, fruit sellers, mothers with their children, beggars, monks, and wayfarers in tattered robes, such as those in the foreground. This view is taken from Via Papale, the processional route toward the Basilica and Scala Santa, or Holy Stairs, where believers climb the steps on their knees to offer penance. On the same street to the left, a group of young men play bocce and shopkeepers open their doors to offer tourists cured meats, souvenirs, and lodging. Piranesi presents the piazza as a place of frenetic energy full of disparities and contradictions, a clear departure from the orderly vision of his contemporary Giuseppe Vasi seen below.
A curious detail in both prints is the appearance of a fallen obelisk. Where in Vasi the obelisk is pure theater, a mere prop in the right foreground to frame his idyllic version of modern Rome, in Piranesi the fallen monument is depicted, positioned, and annotated in ways that signal both topographical accuracy and the contemporary neglect of ancient ruins. It is labelled in the city plan by Giambattista Nolli above at 14, its silhouette visible against the white of the ground where it lies. This obelisk was discovered in the late 1500s in the Horti Sallustiani near the Porta Salaria. Clement XII brought it to the piazza in the 1730s and intended to erect it in front of the main façade of the Basilica when the new design by Alessandro Galilei was completed (Ceen, 35). Instead, the obelisk was abandoned for nearly fifty years before being installed at the top of the Spanish steps. Here, as in the previous view, it is indicated with an annotation that summons close observation of the somewhat obscure visual detail: “Obelisco giacente in terra.” By enticing viewers to look for this detail, Piranesi’s annotation calls attention to this artifact, neglected by authorities, ignored by pedestrians, and overwhelmed by the structures standing around it. This annotation also reveals his antiquarian interests and particular fascination with Egyptian architecture; the central standing obelisk of this piazza is the sole subject of the following view. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.