This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Palazzo della Consulta on the Quirinal housing the Papal Secretariat

Piranesi’s urban vistas that center on Rome’s palaces show in dramatic relief his preference for sharp diagonals that lead to distant vanishing points within a crowded modern city. In his views of ruins, which are more common in the second volume of his Vedute di Roma, annotations often direct a viewer’s eye to building material or architectural detail. In his views of modern palaces, a single annotation often points to distant monuments or piazzas. These annotations serve as orientations, as points of topographical or cartographic rather than archaeological reference. The images where they appear, in keeping with Piranesi’s catering to the tourist market, envision their viewers as tourists navigating the city rather than antiquarians studying the past.

Vasi depicted this palace, which Piranesi identifies as the work of architect Ferdinando Fuga (1699-1782), with a remarkably different composition. In Vasi’s view, the subject is the piazza, while Piranesi’s focus is the palace: he lengthens its façade and fills, and indeed transgresses, the vertical space of the print with its topmost corner. Vasi depicts its details in shallow recession and uses only slight variations in tone, while Piranesi employs bold contrasts between light and shadow to make the façade seem three-dimensional. Vasi positions a fleet of mounted soldiers in front of the palace, while Piranesi uses annotations to indicate the Corpo di Guardia de’ Cavaleggieri, Corpo de’ Corazieri, and Corpo de’ Soldati Rossi. In Piranesi’s view, the street is a site of casual social interaction among groups of monks, tourists, and women rather than a display of military power.

The power that Piranesi’s view does suggest, though, is that of architectural magnificence and sheer urban expansiveness. This volume of the Vedute di Roma groups together seven views of palaces within central Rome, five views of which include annotations that draw our eyes to a distant vanishing point: views of the palaces of Montecitorio, Odescalchi, Stopani, and the French Academy. Of this last plate, Wilton-Ely has remarked that its “bold recession” displays Piranesi’s “appetite for detail sustained along [an] entire street frontage” and “provide[s] his composition with a strong tonal diagonal across the whole plate” (1988, 36). This description is true for each of these images, which, taken together, show Piranesi seeking out exercises in dramatic one-point perspective that position contemporary architectural grandeur within the urban network of axial vistas enacted by Sixtus V. Additionally, these annotated views of modern palaces merge the visual language of the harsh diagonal that leads viewers’ eyes into the distance with the deictic language of annotation, which effectively makes a viewer return to the surface of the image at the very pointindeed, the vanishing pointof its limit. (JB)

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

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