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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Fountainhead of the Acqua Giulia

The caption of this antiquarian image of the ruins of the Fountainhead of the Acqua Julia offers a brief historical description of hydraulic architecture and the reuse of ancient artifacts. This fountainhead was the subject of a short volume, printed in 1761, whose alternative views, cross-sections, plans, and studies of ornamental details, often in the same image, betray Piranesi’s shift to more technical, archaeological images. In this view, the first annotation points to two locations in the view where what were during the eighteenth century considered the two trophy statues of Augustus were displayed in antiquity. Now thought to have been made for Domitian or Trajan, these sculptures were removed from their positions here in 1590 and, as the caption indicates, adorn the Campidoglio. In contrast to the angle of this image, the frontal view of the fountainhead below by Etienne Dupérac (1520-1607) shows the trophies in their ancient locations in the symmetrical ruined niches.
Indicated verbally in this image, these trophies appear in Piranesi’s view of the piazza, and they are the subject of ten plates on the Trophy of Augustus (1753) and a small image in his volume on the Fountainhead. Piranesi’s careful attention to sculptural relief of the trophies in those works is redirected, in this image of 1753, to the foliage growing on the monument and the play of sunlight and dark shadow in the recesses formed by deep gashes in its ancient walls. The ruined fountainhead is also the likely subject of attention for two grand tourists conversing near the center of the foreground and a seated man to their right, who seems to gaze at one of the ruined niches. In the foreground, well-lit laundry is tended by two women whose baskets are parallel with the heavily-shaded, overgrown architectural fragments on the right. Susan Stewart points to this image, and these women, as evidence of Piranesi’s commitment to depicting ruins realistically (175). Piranesi’s realistic depiction also involves choices of composition that contrast with his views of modern fountainheads. This volume of the Views of Rome contains views of three sculptural fountainheads—the Trevi, Acqua Felice, and Acqua Paola—which visually demonstrate authority of the Catholic church in urban design and city life. In many of these images, the top margin is punctured or surpassed by the top of the fountainhead, as if to suggest the broad expanse of papal authority. Here, the ruined walls dominate the image but remain well within its margins. The perspective’s oblique angle and worm’s eye view on the structure itself foreground contemporary activity while emphasizing, even more than the frontal view above, the remaining magnificence of the ancient fountainhead.

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

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