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

The Digital Piranesi

Villa Pamphili

In this dramatic view of the baroque Villa Pamphili, Piranesi exploits the furthest extremes of the scena per angolo and two-point perspective to reveal the wide expanse of the palace gardens, which were among the largest privately owned green spaces in the city. Along with the family palazzo in Piazza Navona, the Villa was conceived as a strategic stronghold of the powerful Pamphili family, and of Pope Innocent X in particular. Indeed, the Villa was built on the exclusive Pincian Hill with a full view of St. Peter’s, meant to extend the powerful grasp of the Pamphili Pope over the city. In its day, the Villa was simply known as the “Bel Respiro” or “Beautiful Air,” famous for its sprawling vineyards, groves of pine trees, and plentiful citrus gardens, all of which are visible in Piranesi’s view. Indeed, parterres in swirling rococo patterns frame the central axis of the grounds, which are lined with ancient sculptures and abundant fountains. Potted plants rest neatly on marble colonnades that articulate the three terraces of the garden. This seemingly idyllic view, however, is harshly interrupted by the gnarled, spiny, and knotted branches of a nearly barren tree in the foreground. 
Piranesi’s preparatory drawing above demonstrates that the tree and heavily wooded hunting grounds were the anchoring elements of the etching’s composition. As a framing device, these overgrown, massive trees create an ominous tone and encourage a viewer’s intimate yet somewhat uneasy encounter with the landscape. The closeups below of the tree on the right reveal the force with which Piranesi put burin to copperplate and, in the incredible thickness of the lines, the painterly quality of his etching technique. 
As Piranesi furiously etches into metal, so does the jagged tree powerfully cut across the grounds. Here, Wilton-Ely notes, the “placid walks and terraces of the Baroque formal garden at Villa Pamphili are transformed by Piranesi into an image of potency…a network of turbulent shadows and menacing foliage.” This type of image is almost “inconceivable,” especially when compared to Piranesi’s contemporaries, such as this small veduta by Giuseppe Vasi​​​​​​​ (Wilton-Ely 1978, 43).

Heightening Piranesi’s more gothic vision of the landscape is a hunter hiding in the brush aiming his gun toward his prey in the small wood, or boschetto, below. As in his view of the Villa Albani, Piranesi makes the ground staff visible in a way that his contemporaries do not. The rifleman additionally alludes to the fact that a large part of the gardens served as a private hunting reserve for the Pamphili family and exclusive guests. The print emphasizes this sense of exclusion, as it offers privileged visual access to the grounds through bird’s eye perspective. The printed view, as a tourist souvenir and relatively inexpensive object, additionally allowed tourists access to a space they could only dream of visiting in real life. In fact, Villa Pamphili was not as open to the public as other contemporary villas, such as the Villa d’Este. In Piranesi’s etching the boundaries between public and private are difficult to discern. Yet, the imposing presence of neighboring villas, such as the Villa Corsini (labeled “1” and “2”) and Villa Ferroni (“3”), remind viewers of the historic concentration of wealth and power in this area reserved for the nobility and the Roman elite. (ZL) 

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

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