This is the first of ten views of the ruins at Tivoli in the Opere’s arrangement. Piranesi engraved an additional 13 views of structures and landscapes in its vicinity. Tivoli is the site of Hadrian’s Villa, built as a retreat for Hadrian 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, Charles-Louis Clerisseau, or Claude-Joseph Vernet, required extensive clearing of vines and weeds. The assortment of buildings that emerged made Tivoli both a more active archaeological site than other monuments in central Rome and a venue for the production of historical knowledge: as structures are identified, mosaics uncovered, and inscriptions deciphered, material evidence summons processes of interpretation and conjecture. 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, but the architect or commissioner of the structure is unknown (“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 foreground to distance but also, perhaps, 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. John Pinto has argued that, when viewed together, as they are presented in the Opere, Piranesi’s views of the ruins at Tivoli are graphical representations of the pursuit of archaeological and historical knowledge (Pinto 1995, 264). As visual compositions as well as word-image composites, they are equally significant for their architectural content and their visual form.
To see this image in Veduta di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.