This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Villa of Cardinal Alessandro Albani

In this view Piranesi depicts the villa and gardens of the Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), the antiquarian, collector, and patron of the arts. As the nephew of Pope Clement XI, he held a powerful position in Rome. Upon Clement’s death in 1721, the young cardinal inherited his uncle’s sizeable library and collection of art, which he increased almost tenfold over the course of the mid eighteenth century. Albani was infamous for having a voracious appetite for ancient artifacts, acquiring them by any means necessary (Valenti Rodino, 27). Despite Albani’s somewhat shady reputation, his villa and collection became renowned for its sheer size and variety, attracting scholars from all over the world. Albani commissioned architect Filippo Marchionni (1732-1805) to design the villa in order to house this large collection of antiquities, some of which can be seen in the garden. Ancient busts, herm statues, tombs, fountains, and freestanding sculptures dot the landscape in Piranesi’s etching. Piranesi recognized the value of Albani’s collection for the study of antiquity, showcasing sculptures from the villa not only in this view, but also in many of his publications. In the image below, Piranesi portrays an ancient bas relief in the collection, decorated with bucrania, birds, and dragons as an example of ancient Roman ornament.  

Visitors to the Villa, like the ones we see strolling through the grounds in Piranesi’s view, not only came to see the vast galleries of art and multi-terraced gardens, but also hoped to meet the illustrious figures in Albani’s orbit. Among his intellectual circle was the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who he hired as a librarian to catalog, acquire, and curate his collection of art, including prints and drawings. Piranesi knew Winckelmann’s work well and critiqued his assessment that Roman art was derivative of Greek art. Piranesi’s active, if somewhat contentious, participation in this community of artists, poets, antiquarians, and scholars surrounding the cardinal may have informed his choice to represent the Villa Albani in the Vedute di Roma. It is notable that Piranesi produced only three views of modern villas. 

Piranesi’s connections to Albani date back to the 1740s when Piranesi first arrived in Rome.  His framing views in Giambattista Nolli’s Topografia di Roma (1748) comprised one of his earliest works and the print was dedicated to none other than Cardinal Alessandro Albani. Studies have revealed that Nolli contributed to the design of the Villa, and perhaps the gardens as well given his background in land surveying and cartography (Bevilacqua 1993, 72-75). The specificity of the planimetric rendering of the gardens in the Topografia might also confirm his role as architect, since the map was published right when the Villa started to be built. Below is a closeup of the map. 

Nolli’s cartographic vocabulary is reflected in Piranesi’s view of the gardens through aerial perspective, the geometry of the landscape, and emphasis on geographic orientation. The only descriptive information Piranesi provides in the caption is the location of Villa outside the Porta Salaria in the northeast of Rome. Piranesi represents the villa from an imaginary elevated perspective, a vantage point from which the principal architectural of both the villa and the garden can be seen. Originally published in 1769, Piranesi shows the latest expansions of the Villa and landscape not seen in the Nolli map above. For example, the newly built loggia at the center of the main building, contained a sculpture gallery that looks out onto the garden, marking the transition from domestic to landscape architecture, as well as from art to nature. Moreover, Nolli’s rigid geometry is displayed in the elaborate designs of the parterres (see detail below), orchards with perfectly cut trees, symmetrical colonnades and staircases, classical marble fountains, and articulated vistas, which work together to create an orderly yet idyllic space. Wearing their best frocks and waistcoats, well to do visitors in the background encounter all these aesthetic delights of the garden, inviting contemplation or conversation.  

The seemingly pristine landscape lends a highly aristocratic air to the scene. It was after all the Villa of a Cardinal. Yet, Piranesi reminds viewers that such a picturesque view doesn’t happen by magic. In the foreground, Piranesi shines a light not on the nobility, but the ground staff, the people that actually cultivated, maintained, and worked the land to craft the order seen in the etching (Holden 2014).

They are not invisible as in Giuseppe Vasi’s view of the Villa, but are seen throughout the print carrying wheelbarrows, cleaning and organizing, or taking a break (see the closeups above). It is interesting to note that Piranesi’s father-in-law was a gardener to the Corsini. Perhaps this emphasis on the staff in this view of the Villa Albani reflects Piranesi’s thoughts on the importance of both design and labor in architecture, and his insistence on signing his name to not only as an author and inventor of prints, but also as an engraver who physically worked the copperplate. (ZL)

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 16 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.

16 Vedute 274

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