This etching is a view of the Heliocaminus at Hadrian’s Villa, part of a thermal complex. In this room, adjustable glass windows allowed sunlight to mingle with water, creating a sauna. Piranesi’s caption describes these elements, with “A” designating the image’s four windows through which, the key specifies, sunlight entered and heated the room during the winter. The caption then describes aesthetic effects of the sunlight, noting that it showed the statues that once populated this room in a flattering light year-round, allowing their value and beauty to be easily distinguished. The key’s detailed information about the discernable beauty of absent statues is at odds with the human figures that, in this view, populate the ruined room. Throughout his views of Rome, Piranesi’s inclusion of merchants and beggars provides contemporary, documentary evidence: the urban poor did, in the eighteenth century, often occupy ancient ruins, and including them in architectural views authenticates the artist’s first-hand observation (Stewart 176). In this view of a room that was historically populated with statues, Piranesi illustrates nine men who sit, slump, lean, or stand, nearly all of them gesturing with both arms pointed in the same direction. Reading the key, observing these men, we might wonder if the sunlight, now interspersed with shadows cast by hanging vines, illuminates the beauty of these vagrants. Piranesi might have thought so: his first biographer, Giovanni Lodovico Bianconi, observed that “instead of studying the nude or beautiful Greek statues, which are the only good models, he set himself to drawing the most gangrenous cripples and hunchbacks in all Rome…. [W]henever he found one of these horrors by a church door, he thought he had discovered a new Apollo Belvedere or a Laocöon, and ran home to draw it” (cited in Mayor 16). The conspicuous presence of contemporary human life in this engraving seems almost pointedly ironic, a statement about Rome’s fall, the sad decline from past luxury to present-day poverty, or perhaps, in accord with Piranesi’s uncommon view, the suggestion that there is beauty in the irregular and ignoble human form. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.