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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Palazzo Farnese

Piranesi’s view of this high Renaissance palace closely resembles that of his teacher-turned rival, Giuseppe Vasi (1710-1782), and its context and content demonstrate features of Piranesi’s training and innovation. Piranesi’s views of modern structures tend not to receive the embellishments and energy that are characteristic of his views of ancient ruins. Some of his views of Renaissance palaces might seem, at first glance, to have little to distinguish them from Vasi’s smoother and more objective depictions of the same subjects, but a closer inspection reveals elements of Piranesi’s distinctive style. At the age of 20, Piranesi apprenticed under Vasi soon after he arrived in Rome in 1740. He left his tutelage after six months but first, convinced Vasi was hiding etching secrets from him, violently attacked him. In the traditional assessment, Vasi survived the attack but lost out to his pupil in terms of reputation. Even if he “imposed his smooth straight style on Piranesi’s early works” (Mayor 14), Vasi’s “prosaic attention” and “monotonous impartiality” are often thought to fall second to Piranesi’s dramatic innovations in technique and composition (Wilton-Ely 1978, 26). In the following decades, they produced views of the same monuments one after the other in a commercial and artistic competition that “resembles a military exchange” (Campbell, 563). In 1747, Vasi’s Delle Magnificenze di Roma Antica e Moderna included the view below.
The subject of the rival artists here is the urban palace of the Farnese family, whose extensive power during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was cemented through territorial possessions and papal allegiances. The Farnese Palace bears the imprint of major figures in Renaissance architecture: Michelangelo, Jacopo Barozzi de Vignola (1507-1573), and Giacomo della Porta (1532-1602). By the eighteenth century, though, the palace was the property of Charles III of Spain, the son of Elisabetta Farnese, and known as the “Ghetto Farnese.” Through various connections, Vasi was able to join other residents there, setting up his printing press in an apartment on the palace’s rear side in 1748 and 1749 (Minor 2001). Differences between their views of the same monuments often demonstrate, particularly through Piranesi’s etching of rough, ruined surfaces, his belief in ancient Rome’s magnificence (see, for example, his and Vasi’s views of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina). In Piranesi’s image above, resemblances to and departures from Vasi’s view demonstrate his command of etching techniques even within the confines of what are essentially the same composition and vantage point. Piranesi worked on much larger copper plates, which allowed him to expand the range of detail and variety of etching techniques. In this view of 1773, he expands the palace’s height, darkens its façade, and more densely populates the piazza. He meticulously etches the façade’s individual bricks, while Vasi renders a largely blank, white surface, marked only by successions of vertical lines. The human figures in Vasi’s image are aristocrats and possibly tourists; Piranesi’s also includes beggars and monks. Building on the work of his teacher, Piranesi ably conveys the past power of the noble family and the lasting architectural significance of the palace while imposing the force of his etching needle over Vasi’s small and smooth views.

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

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