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The Digital Piranesi

Egyptian Obelisk

In its composition, technique, and text, this image of 1759 places particular emphasis on the hieroglyphics carved into this obelisk, which the caption explains was erected in the Piazza of San Giovanni Laterano under Pope Sixtus V. This visual emphasis on the ancient Egyptian writing system is not apparent in other views that include some of the numerous obelisks positioned throughout Rome, such as this view of the same piazza or another of the Piazza del Popolo or another of the Piazza Navona. In each of these other views, wider scenes that include more architectural details call attention away from what here seems to be Piranesi’s focus: in the view of the Piazza Navona, for example, the surface of the obelisk is marked only by the horizontal lines made by Piranesi’s etching needle. By contrast, the visual composition of this plate minimizes the obelisk’s setting. The worm’s eye view and orientation towards the East magnify the obelisk itself, which is strikingly set against the background of a cloudy sky. The Scala Santa and the remains of ancient aqueducts, though labeled, are very faintly etched and just barely visible. Reflecting the visual focus of this image, these aqueducts are indicated rather imprecisely in the annotation as “Rovine di acquedotti antichi” [Remains of ancient aqueducts] but specified, in his “Pianta di Roma e del Campo Marzio,” as “Rovine degl’Archi Neroniani che trasmettevano parte dell’ acqua Claudia al monte Celio.” In this view, Piranesi’s energies are diverted away from the details of ancient Roman architecture.

Instead, his etching needle meticulously renders an ancient writing system that was then thought, in the phrase of French historian Antoine-Yves Goguet (1716-1758), “to paint speech and speak to the eyes” [peindre la parole et … parler aux yeux] (cited in Neis 42). Hieroglyphics were legible only after the Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799 and polyglot Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) deciphered them in 1822. Until then, they were thought to be an ideographic, non-alphabetic writing system; they are in fact both semantic and phonetic, representing both words and sounds. During Piranesi’s lifetime, though, the notion of painting speech and speaking to the eyes resonates with his own combinations of words and images. Additionally, his interest in Egyptian writing and aesthetics is on fuller display in later works. The image below is one of the small architectural fantasies added to his Opere Varie in the early 1760s that combines Roman, Greek, and Egyptian designs. In his Diverse Maniere d’Adornare i Cammini ed Ogni Altra Parte degli Edifizi desunte dall’Architettura Egizia, Etrusca, e Greca [Various Ways of Decorating Chimneypieces … ] (1769), he depicts hieroglyphics in many of his designs for fireplaces. Additionally, in the work’s “Ragionamento Apologetico in Difesa dell’Architettura Egizia e Toscana” [Reasoned Apology in Defense of Egyptian and Tuscan Architecture], he writes that remaining examples of Egyptian statues, capitals, sphinxes, and other ornamental details indicate “what the genius of the nation was” [qual fosse il genio della nazione] (Diverse Maniere … 2). These images are part of the European fad of Egyptomania, which reached its heights in the early decades of the nineteenth century after Piranesi’s death. Piranesi’s defense of Egyptian architectural ornament might seem to be at odds with his polemical statements about the magnificence of Roman as opposed to Greek architecture in Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’Romani [On the Magnificence and Architecture of the Romans] (1761). With his later work, and in the visual emphasis of the image above, he instead seems to favor aesthetic eclecticism that promotes the value of diverse ancient cultures even as it risks cultural appropriation. (JB)

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

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