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

The Digital Piranesi

Ruins of one of the soldiers’ barracks in Hadrian’s Villa

Piranesi presents what he calls soldier’s barracks at Hadrian’s Villa (which archaeologists now designate the Central Service Building) in what is, for him, an uncommon use of two-point perspective. Alternating light and shadow fall through the successive archways that recede towards one vanishing point, and cross-hatching lends vivid texture to the large wall that slopes towards the other, well beyond the image’s frame. Human figures lean on column fragments or stones, spread their angular arms in expressive gestures, and one rides a horse away from the viewer. Most remarkably, one leans beyond the image frame, breaking the boundary between representation and reality. Piranesi frequently includes trompe-l’œil effects in representations of surfaces (stone or paper) in other works, especially Antichità Romane or Della Magnificenza ed architettura de’romani (Dixon 2002). An artistic ruse for centuries, trompe-l’œil appears, in its earliest existing examples, in Roman frescoes, whose rediscovery during Piranesi’s lifetime led to the trend in eighteenth-century interior design. Piranesi’s dedication to the idea of Roman art’s superiority makes his use of the trick in those works appropriate. The Vedute di Roma are more restrained in such illusions: titles and captions appear on illusionistic scrolls or banderoles incorporated in the physical space they depict (as in this view of the Arch of Septimius Severus). The specific illusion of the broken image frame, though, occurs only ten times in the total 137 views included in the Vedute di Roma. There is only one other human figure who transgresses—just barely—the boundary between image and margin in the Views of Rome. In other views, such as the Temple of Bacchus, the Basilica of Santa Croce, and the Forum of Nerva, architectural fragments interrupt and cast shadows on Piranesi’s image titles and explanatory keys. Breaking the visual frame of an image playfully hints that the flat two dimensions of visual art might morph into the three dimensions of real life. This image’s leisurely street musician calls attention to the deceptive nature of visual representation, and the perspectival arrangement of this view, with two implied vanishing points, is shattered by his casually reclining right arm. This musician’s seemingly unaware disruption of the conventions of representational art conveys confidence in the engraver’s power to make three dimensions emerge out of paper’s two-dimensional surface. (JB)

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

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