This page was created by Adiv Srinitesh Sivakumar.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Arch of Septimius Severus

Puncturing the upper left border of this plate, the Arch of Septimius Severus transcends the very limits of the page and is thrust directly into the viewer’s field of vision. From the imposing façade and the deep chiaroscuro to the perspective from below, lack of annotations, and sparsely populated landscape, this image gives viewers an especially intimate encounter with the monument. The sense of immediacy achieved by these elements of the composition sharply contrasts with the more ascetic and archeological approach Piranesi takes in the print of the monument that appears earlier in the Views of Rome. Here, the sublime and almost ethereal surroundings, enhanced by the lack of historical detail in the clothing of the figures and the minimal presence of contemporary eighteenth-century structures, make it difficult to date the scene, almost as if to suggest that it exists outside of time. Enhancing this visual effect is the way these atemporal figures physically interact with the title of the engraving, which is notably placed inside the image itself. Figures rest against, stand atop, and surround the inscription as though it were another ruin in the landscape. In this way, Piranesi plays with elements of both reality and time, intensified by the almost dizzying detail of the ornate sculptural reliefs on the Arch. 

Individual figures almost leap out from the friezes, enlivened by the contrast between light and shadow.  Each coffer of the middle vault is painstakingly rendered and the subtle differences in the texture of the stones are revealed through a sculptural etching technique, in which the grooves are carved out of the copper plate to create high relief and darker tones (Scaloni, 49-56). This technique reflects the way that inscriptions, consisting of metal letters in this case, were affixed to ancient Roman monuments, the remnants of which can still be seen in the partially effaced text in the topmost register of the triumphal arch (Minor, 19-20). Piranesi discusses these methods as well as those used for the ornamental design of the Arch in his Roman Antiquities (vol. 1). The heightened attention to the details of architectural decoration in this view supports Piranesi’s criticism of ornamental excess. The Arch of Septimius Severus is not only disproportionately rich with figures, animals, and hybrid motifs, but these also principally derive from what Piranesi considered an inferior Greek style of ornamentation. In this case, as Piranesi says, “ornament did not make the monument more prestigious,” because it “lacked the proper style of both Architecture and Sculpture” (“Index” to “Plan of Rome,” Roman Antiquities, vol. 1). While the perspective, shading, and composition of this image augment the monumentality of the towering Arch, its emphasis on ornament detracts, according to Piranesi, from its grandeur. (ZL)

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

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