This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of the so-called Temple of the Tosse near Tivoli

This interior view of the same structure seen in the previous engraving is a dramatic recreation of entering an ancient interior space. Piranesi’s interior views, much more than those of earlier or contemporary artists, are “acutely sensitive to the powerful effects of envelopment that come from actually entering Roman spaces” (Pinto 2012, 111). A structure of unknown function, the so-called “Temple of the Coughs” bears an oculus and cupola similar to those of the Pantheon, whose interior Piranesi depicts with sunlight falling at a similar angle. The portrait orientation of this image—uncommon in the Views of Rome—emphasizes the building’s height. The arch in the foreground almost frames the interior space symmetrically, with the light that is cast on its right side effacing the visual balance on each side of the image. It is as if we are stumbling upon this evenly framed interior space rather than studiously composing a symmetrical view. In the image’s caption, another shadow brings different effects that speak to Piranesi’s combinations of image and text. The only annotated items are the structure’s windows, which, the caption informs us, were filled in during the Middle ages. Using what is now a contemptuous term for late antiquity or the Middle ages (“tempi bassi” or “low times”), he attempts to date the structure’s different phases based on building materials—“mattoni” and “tufa” (bricks and volcanic ash). There is no secret about Piranesi’s historical preference for antiquity, which his engraving styles betray early in his career. Jonathan Scott noted that, in his artistic development, his most expressive techniques only begin to appear when he shifts his attention away from Renaissance structures to the crumbling remains, textural variety, and botanical overgrowth of ancient ruins; with this change in subject, “the plates came to life” (Scott 17). In other engravings of ancient structures, he attempts to date similar interventions to the “low times” or “tempi bassi” by using building materials as evidence. In the caption to the above image, the visual presentation of this phrase suggests his disdain for this period. Two fragments of a fluted column and other thick blocks of stone hover over the caption, casting a shadow between Piranesi’s words in ways that seem to collaborate with his text. Throughout his works, fragments function in different ways, as documents in archaeological study or, alternatively, as metaphors in his visionary creations (Pinto 2012, 143). Here, they seem to function semantically, almost as punctuation. The shadow creates a division between the view’s long title, separating the shorter, independent phrase “Internal view of the Temple of the Cough” from its continuation after the shadow, “constructed of bricks and tufa.” The text for “A” is likewise divided between “Walls with which the windows were filled in” and the historical designation “during the middle ages.” In this verbal caption’s visual composition, image and text collaborate, in the seemingly casual placement of a shadow, so as to further separate Piranesi’s efforts to analyze and historicize, based on material evidence, from the persistent legends of the “low” times. (JB)

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

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