In the Opere’s arrangement of the plates comprising the Vedute di Roma, this is the first of a group of ten views of the ruins at Tivoli, the site of Hadrian’s Villa, built during the early second century CE. Beginning with the decline of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the entire architectural complex was ravaged by natural growth and human plunder. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the ruins were overgrown, difficult to access, and divided among various property owners and farmers. Indeed, Piranesi’s visits to Tivoli, often in the company of architects and artists including Robert Adam (1728-1792), Charles-Louis Clerisseau (1721-1820), or Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), required extensive clearing of vines and weeds. The artifacts and ruins that emerged made Tivoli both a an ideal location for Piranesi’s proclivities for overgrown, crumbling ruins and an active site for archaeological labor, conjectures, and conclusions.
Piranesi’s views of the ruins at Tivoli constitute a separate series within the larger project of the Vedute di Roma (Verschaffel 122). When viewed together, as they are presented in the Opere, they stand out as graphical representations of the pursuit of archaeological and historical knowledge (Pinto and MacDonald 264). As mosaics are uncovered, inscriptions are deciphered, and structures are identified, material evidence summons processes of interpretation and conjecture that Piranesi renders in vedute that fully exploit the genre’s capacity to simulate physical presence while severing artistic illusion through informative annotations. The title of this image, by referring to “avanzi,” or remains, rather than declaring the work a “veduta” of the villa, suggests that Piranesi is consciously pushing beyond the characteristics of the genre. Indeed, eight of the 16 images of architectural structures in Tivoli do not include “veduta” in their title.
In many cases, identifying structures proves difficult. Along with his contemporaries, Piranesi believed the structure depicted in this view to be the villa of Mecenate (Maecenas), an Etruscan nobleman and friend of Augustus, but it was in fact, as Napoleon’s Prefect of Rome identified it in 1811, the remains of the sanctuary of Hercules Victor. The key alludes to the process of knowledge-production that appears throughout Piranesi’s depictions of ruins at Tivoli by specifying unknown details in the villa’s construction. The structure was, the key observes, built of travertine, “a opera incerta.” The harsh diagonal that proceeds from the left of the image to the right of this view recasts the simple one-point perspective that also appears in other views as a procession not only from the foreground to the background but also from the informative position of the key, in the foreground, to the uncertainty of the obscured vanishing point. The caption points to what is (thought to be) known and, then, to what is unknown, just as the sharp recession of the structure draws the beholder’s eye from the structure’s imposing height along a line that recedes into distant indistinct shapes. As visual compositions as well as word-image composites, his images of Tivoli are equally significant for their architectural content and their visual form. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’ s Opere, click here.