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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Façade of the Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano

In the sequence of the Opere, Piranesi’s last view of San Giovanni in Laterano is a close-up of the newly redesigned façade of the Basilica, the work granted to the Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737) after a heated competition among Rome’s most renowned artists in 1732. Though visitors to the church would normally enter from the transept, visible in Piranesi’s earlier view, Pope Clement XII hoped that Galilei’s new façade would attract even more pilgrims by heightening the Basilica’s visual impact. The reorganization of the piazza allowed the Pope to address pilgrims directly from the loggia, noted in annotation “A,” which was included as a central feature of the façade’s design. Piranesi’s caption notes that this visual spectacle would have been especially palpable on feast days, which drew large crowds and hefty indulgences in an “urban theater of charity” (San Juan 55, 70-1). Upon entering the new façade of one of the “seven churches” of Rome, pilgrims would encounter Francesco Borromini’s dramatic nave lined with massive sculptures of the apostles, seen in the previous view, leading to the ornate ciborium containing the relics of Peter and Paul. Piranesi’s dramatic lighting effects call attention to the monumental sculptures of saints and their billowing robes crowning the façade, which, in addition to the very baroque colonnade, connected the exterior architecture with the interior. Piranesi further connects these two spaces through the organized procession of pilgrims in the foreground, as well highlighting the façade’s innovative open portico on the bottom floor. The foreshortened space of the piazza brings viewers to this liminal space, which emphasizes both the architecture of the façade and the function of the Basilica as a holy site. 
Galilei’s façade is especially monumental in Piranesi’s view when compared to Giuseppe Vasi’s rendition of the same space. Vasi positions viewers at street level; Piranesi instead portrays the church from an imaginary and elevated viewpoint. With an almost mannerist style, Piranesi elongates the columns and windows of the two-storied portico to a structurally impossible degree. Where Vasi includes a “conscientious inventory of adjacent buildings,” Piranesi’s steep diagonals bring viewers into close contact with Galilei’s commanding façade by biting of the copper plate so deeply that the statue of Christ is nearly cropped (Wilton-Ely 1978, 27). Rendered in a diffuse light and sketchy lines, the seemingly infinite landscape on the left only adds to the sculptural immensity of the Basilica. Piranesi rarely praises contemporary architects but, in this view, employs every possible visual strategy to underline the grandeur of Galilei’s architectural design. (ZL)

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

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