In the Opere’s sequence, this is the last of Piranesi’s three etchings of the Temple of the Sibyl in Tivoli. As the final image in a small group, it draws on the enterprises and orientations of the other two in order to offer its viewers an active role in the discovery and interpretation of the ancient past. The temple is teeming with human figures: some crawl on its surface, some emerge from its shadows, and others lean over its edges. In particular, the vivid silhouettes of the two human figures poised precariously atop the temple’s second level are a reminder of the many figures in the other two engravings of the temple that seem to be on the verge of falling. These postures evoke the topographical position of the temple—it sits atop a cliff overlooking a waterfall—that Piranesi indicates only in the first of the image’s two brief annotations, which specifies the substructure of the temple’s vestibule. This bustle of human activity contrasts with the relative scarcity of annotation, especially when compared with the frenzy of bibliographical and evidentiary work in the first image’s annotation. Applying the conclusions of attribution made in that print’s caption, this image’s second annotation presumes the attribution of the rectangular temple, visible here only as a small sliver of column behind the Temple of the Sybil, to Albunea, the Etruscan sibyl. As they are situated within the image, the numerical annotated features proceed from the foreground to the distance, using identification and language to draw the beholder’s eye deeper into the image.
For Bart Verschaffel, this image is a radical departure from the visual tradition that casts the temple as a site of welcoming, bucolic elegance; instead, its vantage point brings forward the temple’s “heavy, primitive, gigantesque” foundations (139) and limits a viewer’s access to the image. For Susan Stewart, this engraving illustrates Piranesi’s understanding of visual perspective as a temporal experience and welcomes viewers in a different way. In the dedication of the Prima Parte d’Architettura e Prospettive to Nicola Giobbe, Piranesi emphasizes the contributions of perspective to that early work’s images, parts of which he says he wanted to appear first before the eyes of the spectator. It is a complicated and polemical statement: “In tutti questi disegni Voi vedrete quanto mi abbia contribuito la Prospettiva, perché alcune parti di essi, le quali io voleva in certo modo che più dell’altre si osservassero dallo Spettatore si manifestassero prima di tutte agli occhi di lui” (Nyberg and Mitchell 115-6). With its portrait orientation, this image highlights the temple’s three distinct layers, each of which includes human figures of different sizes. Stewart’s conclusion, regarding this image in particular, that “Our view thus is a slightly swooping sotto in sù—moving down and up, we must mine our perspective,” (180) is also an apt gloss on others. This visual movement, coupled with the details indicated by the annotations, makes the beholder an active participant in the study of this temple that Piranesi’s series has traced. From the first “view” of the temple to the two “other views” that follow, Piranesi makes the visual image itself a site of discovery and invites its beholders to take part in the process of architectural identification. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.