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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, and its context and content demonstrate features of Piranesi’s training and innovation. 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. Both artists produced views of the same subjects one after the other in a seemingly relentless commercial and artistic competition. 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). When Piranesi produces this image in the early 1770s, he is illustrating a site once associated with his rival’s commercial production.

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’s much larger copper plates allowed him to expand the range of detail and variety of etching techniques.
In this view, 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, smooth views and professional affiliations. (JB)

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

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