At the visual threshold of an expansive interior marked by successive arches and alternating light and shadow, two figures appear to engage in conversation while resting against a caption of illusionistic substance. 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 key, 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—Piranesi’s specific deductions based on the inscriptions are accurate (Campbell, 583). In front of the key, the men seem themselves to be engaged in a 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 40). The caption itself engages in an intellectual movement through the process of archaeological interpretation and, not unlike the man who leans against the caption, offers a conjecture. The caption begins with an inscription, noted on the wall, and proceeds to interpretation and conjecture: from the Latin inscription, we are, Piranesi asserts, persuaded (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 (and indicated with the key’s “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.
To see this image in Veduta di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.