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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Trevi Fountain

In this view, Piranesi reenacts conflicts that the iconic Trevi Fountain embodies. The fountain itself is a feat of hydraulic engineering and a masterpiece of sculptural design, with water from the ancient Acqua Vergine aqueduct directed into an especially cramped piazza located at the confluence of three streets (thus “Trevi,” from “tre” [three] and “via” [street]). On one hand, it is a contested architectural project: design schemes for the Trevi were the subject of quarrels between competing architects and powerful Roman families (Krist). In this light, the fountain is a site of conflict between papal authority, civic governance, and public taste. On the other hand, it is a sculptural simulation of natural rock from which statues emerge and pure water flows and, as such, a mediation between nature and culture, an “illusion” that “the countryside has materialized at the heart of the city” (Pinto 2012, 59), or a suggestion of “alarming transformations of civilization into barbarism” (Harbison, 47).

The perspective and composition of the view seem to reinforce the distinctions that the fountain seeks to combine. By filling almost half of the visual field with a blank sky and foregrounding a linear procession of human bodies representing different social ranks, Piranesi emphasizes oppositions between natural elements and urban architecture, and he calls attention to different kinds of social, urban conflict. More sky is visible here than in almost any other view of Rome (except, of course, those of the Column of Marcus Aurelius, which Piranesi calls the Column of Antonina, and the Egyptian obelisk). Vast space is thus devoted to one unadulterated natural element (sky) in an image of an architectural, sculptural, urban project that carefully controls another (water). The fountain’s statues include Agrippa, shown supervising the construction of the Acqua Virgine, and horses and Tritons that flank the central figure of Oceanus, who (unlike the actual statue today) directs his and viewers’ eyes up towards the sky instead of the fountain’s (and Piranesi’s) artistic composition (Pinto 2000, 144). To follow this glance away from the image’s artistic subject and towards the natural element that nearly dominates its visual field, viewers must first transgress the impediment of the living bodies in the foreground. As Bart Verschaffel observes, Piranesi’s views often include at their lower edge a distinct boundary, composed of people or rubble, that limits a viewer’s imaginative entry into the depicted scene. Here, people seem to flood the foreground, further constricting the tightly-confined fountain, which Piranesi insists is “vast [vasta]” (and, in the following view, “gran [grande, large]”). The fountain’s own mingling of nature and culture is framed by the mingling of social classes: monks with solemn postures, aristocrats with ornate carriages, women with prodigious bustles, and haggard men with tattered clothes.  

Piranesi’s personal affiliation with the fountain is evident here and continues today. The architect he notes in a small caption here and within the following view’s title is the Roman architect Nicola Salvi (1697-1751), Piranesi’s friend and fellow academy member. Salvi’s death in February 1751 along with the presence of later work by sculptor Giovanni Battista Maini (1690-1752) date the etching to later in the year and suggest that this view is, for Piranesi, something of a memorial. The façade from which the fountain seems to emerge was, in the eighteenth century, that of the Palazzo Conti; today it houses the National Institute for Graphic Design, where 962 of Piranesi’s original copper plates, having returned to Rome after their complex journeys to Naples and then Paris, are stored in shelves that extend under the fountain (Minor 2015, 193-7). (JB)

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

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