Few engravings in the Vedute di Roma series appear without “veduta” in the title, as simply the names of the monuments they depict. The Arch of Septimius Severus is one such rare engraving; others include the Theater of Marcellus, Pyramid of Caius Cestius, and Tomb of Cecilia Metella, which were all sites of keen archeological interest to Piranesi. Indeed, the artist produced multiple architectural studies of these monuments in different publications. The annotations in this image’s key reconstruct the ancient topography of the Roman forum by listing the original name, location, and purpose of each building. For example, Piranesi’s captions note that the arch was used for triumphal processions to the Capitoline Hill and locate the ancient Mamertine Prison, where, he says, Paul and Peter were imprisoned, and above which the church of San Giuseppe was erected. In this way, he provides viewers with an archeologically and historically accurate map rather than a more traditional contemporary veduta. These non-views are indeed more similar in style and purpose to the architectural reconstructions and composite images in his Antichità Romane. In light of Jeanne Zarucchi’s argument that the “veduta” and “altra veduta” are two distinct types of images, it is also worth considering this group of prints as a third category within Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma.
Another unique aspect of this engraving is the fact that a modern building, the Accademia di San Luca, is depicted with the same attention and grandeur as the ancient monuments that surround it. Piranesi notes in the key that the Academy was designed by the renowned architect Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), which adds to its prestige. The church itself, taking up the entire right side of the composition, is depicted in full splendor: every curve of the undulating Baroque façade, dome, and lantern is etched with precision and depth. The shading and lighting effects on the Academy, as well as its position on the middle plane, provide a visual foil to the ancient column on the left as if to imply that they stand on equal ground. But why should Piranesi grant a modern building such pride of place? He was in fact a member of the prestigious Academy, along with the most important artists of the day. Many of them, including Piranesi, actively participated in the preservation and restoration of ancient Roman artifacts and in archaeological excavations, often sponsored through ties to the Academy. By making a visual homage to his professional and intellectual home, Piranesi legitimizes the activities of the Academy, but also, by extension, his own pursuits as an architect, antiquarian, and printer. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.