The Digital Piranesi
This page was created by Adiv Srinitesh Sivakumar. The last update was by Jeanne Britton.
View of the Tablinum of Nero’s Golden House (2 of 2)
Piranesi’s etching is a reinterpretation of Canaletto’s Basilica di Massenzio, Santa Francesca Romana e il Colosseo (1753-4). At first glance, the most striking change is to the composition. Piranesi completely cuts off the right side of Canaletto’s painting; in his etching, even the other ancient monuments seem insignificant beside the gargantuan barrel vaulted arches that dominate the composition. In fact, the Colosseum is barely visible on the right, possibly only by being indicated with “C.” Piranesi borrows Canaletto’s angled perspective but increases the drama ten-fold through “steep perspectival torsion” (Nevola 2016, 65). Illuminated by the monochromatic tones and harsh lines of the etching technique, the diagonals created by the contrast between shadow and light underneath the arches heighten this theatrical effect. Piranesi also significantly lowers the vanishing point so that viewers are positioned to look up into the massive vault. In the Canaletto, people in the foreground do not directly engage with the monument—they are observers, measuring or making notes from a distance, as if to call attention to the viewer’s role as an observer of art. By contrast, Piranesi dissolves any such barrier, bringing viewers directly under the overpowering and dark shadow of the robust arches. Just as figures in Piranesi's etching walk through and around the arches, viewers of the engraving are wholly consumed by the monument.
As the title suggests, Piranesi argued that this structure was not the Temple of Peace, as was thought at the time, but rather the Domus Aurea of Nero (the building is now considered to be the Basilica of Maxentius.) The caption on the lower right, in addition to Piranesi’s exposure of the layers of different architectural interventions in the structure, give the veduta a more archeological thrust and support his dating and attribution of the monument. His caption documents the archeological features of the monument and expands on the annotations in his two other prints of the subject. Piranesi’s precise etching technique illuminates the structure’s history and details, including coffers, bricks, walls, and architectural supports. While his intense focus on the monument expresses the sublimity of ancient architecture, the close-up of the first arch is largely documentary in nature.
Rough hatching interrupts the pristine layers of brick in the central arch, thereby exposing the underlying structure of both the arch and wall, labeled “A” and “B.” Subtle distinctions in the layering of the brick, brought out by the slender burst of light in the foreground, make a visual argument (that the lower walls of the structure were built in an earlier period of the Roman Republic), and an annotation makes this point explicit: “Muro da A.B. fatto prima del restante della Fabbrica.” In the act of translating Canaletto’s painting onto paper—the medium of architectural history and archeology—Piranesi uses etching as a way to push the limits of the veduta and to surpass his contemporaries. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.