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 (labeled “1”) formed one of the most iconic and sacred spaces in Rome. Yet from this aerial perspective, it 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 offering cured meats, souvenirs, and lodging to tourists. 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 signals topographical accuracy and the preservation of ancient ruins. Piranesi depicts the proportions, location, and orientation of the obelisk with the utmost precision, which appears in the city plan by Giambattista Nolli above, labeled “14”. This obelisk was discovered in the late 1500s in the Horti Sallustiani near the Porta Salaria. Clement XII had brought it to the piazza in the 1730s intending 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. However, Piranesi would not see the obelisk erected in his lifetime, and for him, by the time this view was published, twenty years had already been too long. Here, as in the previous view, the fallen obelisk is directly across from the viewer, signaling its importance. Piranesi further insists on the close observation of the ancient ruin by labeling it in the text and in the image: “4. Obelisk lying on the ground.” By enticing viewers to look for this hidden detail, he also makes them confront its state of neglect, inviting reflection on, and perhaps criticism of the blatant disregard of the people in the piazza for this prestigious ancient artifact. They go about their daily lives despite this monumental obelisk lying on the ground in front of them, heightening what Zarucchi describes as the “ironic contrast between past and present, not just in the obvious physical sense but in a social and moral sense as well.” Piranesi’s attention to the obelisk perhaps allows us to understand how Piranesi “felt about his city and the slow degradation of its legacy” (377). The prominence of this seemingly incidental detail additionally speaks directly to Piranesi’s antiquarian interests and particular fascination with Egyptian architecture. In fact, the central standing obelisk of the piazza is in fact 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.