interrupted diagonal line of the three ruined buildings, moving from the upper left to the far right of the image, and it finds a double in the diagonal line linking three human figures, staggered from the caption in the foreground to the dark interior in the background. Each of the human figures gestures left, towards the ruins. These human figures have been said to serve many purposes across Piranesi’s works. They can establish and exaggerate scale, provide documentary evidence of eighteenth-century Roman life, suggest pervasive decay (Hyatt Mayor, 16), hinder identification (Verschaffel), resemble “human insects” (Yourcenar, 102), gesture towards a monument, gesticulate towards nothing in particular (Wilton-Ely 1994, 361), or, by pointing to an image’s caption or title, amplify its “deictic power” (Stewart, 172). The human beings depicted in this single view perform different actions and produce varied, opposing effects. In the foreground, two men gesture, one pointing to the structure with both arms, his palms facing upwards, while the other leans down and points to, and into, the image’s caption. A second man along the diagonal of human figures also points at a section of the ruined palace while leaning against a lump of stone. The diagonal ends in the third mass, where a white, ghostly figure barely emerges from the shadow of a partial interior. He, too, gestures to the left of the image. hile human figures in earlier landscape or architectural views tended to serve as surrogates for the viewer, offering a position of identification through which a viewer could behold an artwork’s subject, Piranesi’s human figures, Verschaffel has argued, “are not simply present in his world: they sit on the threshold as guardians” (135). The three gestures, all pointing in the same direction, nevertheless direct a viewer’s eye towards the ruins. The structure’s modern name, as specified in the engraving’s title, marks a linguistic gap that adds to the sense of historical distance and physical decay. Perhaps this image’s conflicting visual guides—the diagonal lines, the gesturing figures—point towards the inaccessibility of the luxury and glory associated with ruins that, even though they can be observed and documented, remain out of reach.
To see this image in Veduta di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.