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 powerful Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), the antiquarian, collector, patron of the arts, and nephew of Pope Clement XI. Upon Clement’s death in 1721, he inherited his uncle’s sizeable library and art collection, which he increased almost tenfold. Albani had a voracious appetite for ancient artifacts, acquiring them by any means necessary (Valenti Rodinò 27). Despite his unsavory reputation, his villa and collection were renowned for their sheer size and variety, attracting scholars from all over the world. He 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 those 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 such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who he hired as a librarian to catalog 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 include the Villa Albani among the three modern villas he depicts in the Vedute di Roma. 

Piranesi’s connections to Albani date back to the 1740s. One of his earliest publications, the framing views in Giambattista Nolli’s Topografia di Roma (1748) was dedicated to him. Nolli contributed to the design of the Villa and perhaps, given his background in land surveying and cartography, the gardens as well (Bevilacqua 1993, 72-5). The specificity of the planimetric rendering of the gardens in the Topografia might also confirm his role as architect, since the map was published at the same time 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 northeast of Rome. Piranesi represents the villa and garden from an imaginary elevated perspective. Originally published in 1769, this veduta 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 details 1 and 2 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. Although the seemingly pristine landscape lends a highly aristocratic air to the scene, Piranesi reminds viewers that such a picturesque view does not happen without labor. In the foreground, Piranesi shines a light not on the nobility, but the ground staff, the people who cultivated, maintained, and worked the land to craft the order the etching celebrates (Holden).

Absent from Giuseppe Vasi’s view of the Villa, its laborers appear throughout Piranesi’s print carrying wheelbarrows, cleaning and organizing, or taking a break (see detail 3, 4, and 5 above). It is worth noting that Piranesi’s father-in-law was a gardener to the Corsini. This emphasis on the staff in this view of the Villa Albani reflects Piranesi’s appreciation of both design and labor in architecture, and it also parallels 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 the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here

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