This page was created by Adiv Srinitesh Sivakumar.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum

Although the composition of this view of Temple of Antoninus and Faustina bears a strong resemblance to that of Piranesi’s mentor, Giuseppe Vasi (seen below), Piranesi’s visual and verbal presentation distinctly convey his greater interest in the magnificence of antiquity. Both employ the theatrical scena per angolo perspective, in which the pronaos [the colonnaded portico] of the temple is seen from the right (Pinto 2012, 106) and the human figures in the foreground appear diminutive in comparison to the temple's massive Corinthian columns. Piranesi, though, diminishes and even cuts off the contemporary buildings featured in Vasi’s image, enhancing the scale of the pronaos. Piranesi’s focus is the ancient monument, while Vasi emphasizes its position within its contemporary context (Wilton-Ely 1988, 26-7). In Vasi’s engraving, the cows, abandoned wheels, discarded wood, botanical life, and the figures entering and exiting the modern buildings on the left evoke the daily life of eighteenth-century Rome. In addition, three modern churches are represented in the key and identified in the image.
By contrast, Piranesi’s one annotation identifies the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda in order to distinguish between the modern Christian building and the ancient pronaos incorporated into the temple’s design. The large cross illuminated by the white of the billowing clouds behind it additionally calls attention to the Christianization of ancient buildings, a practice Piranesi also highlights in his views of the Colosseum and Pantheon. Distinctions between temple and church, pagan and Christian, and ancient and modern are further underlined by the architectural palimpsest on the right side of the pronaos that Piranesi reveals through rotating, elongating, and lowering the viewpoint of Vasi’s composition. Just as the wall, stripped of its ornaments, divulges the structure underneath, so too does Piranesi’s perspective expose the foundations of the wall and the ornamental frieze. Such exposure suggests Barbara Maria Stafford’s comparison between Piranesi’s pictorial methods and those of anatomical illustration (Stafford 1997, 64-6). Whether it be the hidden layers of the human body or the architectural bones of a building, detailed and annotated engravings, in archeology and anatomy, sought to make the invisible visible. Piranesi’s exposure of the ‘veins’ and ‘muscles’ of the columns and lateral wall here not only reveals chronological divisions but also allows him and his viewers to imagine that which no longer exists. Rendered in jet black ink, the jagged lines etched into the Corinthian columns, almost like gashes or open wounds, show signs that the temple was once buttressed by a roof. Piranesi hypothesizes that this roof was built sometime in the medieval period, which he calls the “tempi bassi” or “low times.” Similarly, the black holes and dark lines in the wall on the right, like blood vessels or veins, show where the marble would have been placed to decorate the exterior of the temple. The pockmarked, heavily shadowed, and deteriorated large blocks of the ancient wall are even more apparent when compared with the polished, bright, and rectilinear lines of the church façade and modern houses on the right. 

Piranesi often uses different hatching techniques to emphasize the magnificence of ancient Roman architecture. As in his depiction of the Temple of Jupiter Tonans, he here renders modern buildings in shallow relief so that the brilliance of ancient ornamentation and engineering shine through the rough, dense, almost sculptural lines he incises into the metal plate. The exposed wall, of deep interest to Piranesi, is the primary subject of his small view of the temple in the Antichità Romane. Whereas his contemporaries all but ignored the wall, choosing to depict the more visually captivating pronaos or frieze, he found evidence of the true brilliance of Roman engineering in the temple’s simple, unadorned blocks. (ZL)

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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