At the visual threshold of an expansive interior marked by successive arches and alternating light and shadow, two figures seem to engage in conversation while resting against a caption that appears to be a substantial feature of the building. The misnamed ruin depicted in this engraving is the backdrop of a consideration about the processes of identification, conjecture, and archaeological analysis that from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century constitute the production of historical knowledge. In the text of the key, itself positioned in an illusionistic banner, Piranesi speculates about the use of the building based on inscriptions and architectural evidence, and while the name of the structure indicated in the engraving is incorrect—it is the sanctuary of Hercules Victor, not the Villa of Maecenas—his specific deductions based on the inscriptions are accurate (Campbell 583).
In front of the key, the men seem themselves to debate, with the figure on the left leaning back and partially extending an arm, as if to offer a conjecture. The human figures are set off from the space of the image by the key, a “clearly artificial banner” whose text, to their left and right, places “unusual emphasis” on them rather than its content (Zarucchi 373). This apparent dissonance between image, human figure, and text is echoed in the energetic movement John Wilton-Ely identifies in the irregular patterns of light, composition of the ground, and “diagonally related moving figures” in this view (Wilton-Ely 1988, 40), an image that, as Paul Zucker argues, prioritizes the spatial rather than romantic effects of ruins (129-30). The alphabetic caption itself traces an intellectual movement through the process of archaeological interpretation and, not unlike the man who leans against the caption, offers a conjecture. It begins with an inscription, noted on the wall, and proceeds to interpretation and conjecture: “Dall’iscrizione … siam[o] persuasi…” that the building was made for communal use and vaulted for maintenance. Additionally, from the evidence marked under the vault (B), he is convinced that the lower areas were used to sell wine. Between its visual composition and its informative key, this dramatic image envelops its beholders within the process of locating, compiling, and analyzing material evidence in the production of historical knowledge. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.