This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Waterfall of Tivoli

This and the following engraving are significant departures for their focus on natural elements. As an architectural illustrator, Piranesi betrays a notable commitment to rendering natural growth, and, as a nephew of the architect for the magistrate of waterways in Venice, he also holds, as lesser-known publications including Le Rovine del Castello dell’Acqua Giulia and Descrizione e disegno dellEmissario del Lago Albano indicate, a strong interest in hydraulic engineering. In this image, the unrestricted force of Tivoli’s waterfall is framed by human activity and development, with a lone figure reaching perilously towards the water in a posture that evokes the sublime.

In the eighteenth century, waterfalls themselves can suggest the sublime, particularly the sense of physical threat that arises from the confrontation between natural power and human life. People interact with water throughout the image, as the details in the gallery below show—the fisherman in the left foreground faces the viewer (detail 1), another near the illusionistic stone caption is nearly lost in the weeds (detail 2), and a small group of animals is watched by a shepherd in the distance (detail 3). Daily life at water’s edge appears unremarkable in these details. But for the figure perched precariously at the foot of the cliffs overhead, what might be habitual activity suggests the conflict between natural power and human control that Piranesi also explores in etchings of ornamental fountains.
The dark lines that form the figure’s stooped back and splayed arms are cast in high relief against the almost blank space of foaming water (detail 4). With this sharp contrast, what otherwise appears to be a rare landscape subject also hints at the thematic concerns that animate Piranesi’s other works. (JB)

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.     

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