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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli

This view of the Villa d’Este gardens is the last in Piranesi’s series of modern villas in the Vedute di Roma. Piranesi depicts the sprawling grounds of this famous Renaissance palace from below to emphasize the proportions, geometry, and visual impact of the garden’s multi-terraced central axis plan. Built in the mid sixteenth century, the garden was a veritable feat of hydraulic engineering. Hundreds of fountains, grottos, water organs, vistas, trompe l’oeil frescoes, and animal automata made the garden a feast for the senses, as the prints by Etienne Duperac and Francesco Venturini below demonstrate. 

The garden was originally designed by architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio for his patron Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. As governor of Tivoli from 1550, Ippolito was responsible for the water management of the town. He destroyed a quarter of the town and created a new aqueduct that diverted water from the Rivellese spring. Two thirds of the new aqueduct supplied water to the public, while the remaining third was dedicated to the spectacle of waterworks in the garden (Lazzaro, 215-7). Many features of the garden recalled the ancient ruins for which Tivoli was well-known. Of particular interest to Ligorio—and Piranesi—was the site of Hadrian’s Villa, which he systematically surveyed and excavated over the course of the 1560s. Many antiquities were taken from the site for Ippolito’s personal collection and displayed in the palace and gardens; some appear in the foreground of Piranesi’s etching. The Villa d’Este is the only modern site among the many ancient architectural subjects in Tivoli that, beginning beginning in the Opere’s sequence with the Villa of Maecenas, Piranesi depicts in the Vedute di Roma. 

By Piranesi’s time the villa had been abandoned. In contrast to the more the idealized views of the villa by his predecessors, Piranesi’s in an image of decay. Printmakers such as Francesco Venturini sought to improve upon the reality of the space in order to convey a sense of order and geometry, as seen in the example above (Lazzaro, 219). By contrast, Piranesi’s etching reveals the unkempt and overgrown landscape, reflecting the power of nature over human intervention. In this sense, his picturesque style shares more with French artists such as Hubert Robert, Charles Joseph Natoire, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard than with his Italian contemporaries (see below). These views inspired images of the villa, and landscapes more generally, during the Romantic period.
Yet, vestiges of the villa’s former grandeur can still be felt in Piranesi’s perspectival view. The imposing central axis with its sequence of four arches and fountains is still visible. The labyrinthian routes through the wood created by the rectangular hedges and cypress trees encourage movement through the space and various features of the garden. The statues of gods and nymphs in the foreground are easily three to four times the size of the people below. Though the mosaics of this fountain have all but disappeared, the Este fleur-de-lis on the right reminds viewers of the indelible mark on the landscape left by Ippolito and Ligorio’s vision. 

In fact it seems as though Piranesi treats the Villa d’Este, a modern building, as an  ancient ruin. Heightening this effect is the title caption, which, incised in Roman capitals on a fictive stone slab, is made to look ancient. Surrounding the title is a pile of broken fragments, a motif often found in Piranesi’s views of ancient buildings. Furthermore, the sparsely populated landscape, overgrown and spidery trees, dark shadows, and disorienting perspective are all characteristic elements of such views. While Piranesi usually sought to distinguish between ancient and modern architecture, this etching blurs the lines between the past and present.  (ZL)

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

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