This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of the Pronaos of the Pantheon

With their sheer mass and verticality, the fluted Corinthian columns provide an overwhelming entrance to this view of the pronaos of the Pantheon. They act as a framing device but also tower over viewers, who are made to feel that they have actually entered the portico. Just as impressive as their massive form, Piranesi remarks in the key, is the fact that “each column is made of only one piece, of a diameter of 6.6 palmi wide [and] 63.8 palmi tall.” The visual and textual emphasis on these columns and their dimensions signals their significance to Piranesi’s visual argument about the date of the Pantheon’s construction, a subject of much debate throughout the early modern period. Piranesi was one of many who considered the pronaos to be a later addition to the original design. However, departing from his contemporaries, he argued that the entire structure was built under Agrippa, but in different phases. The disjuncture between the columns, the cornice of the portico, and the main building, seen in the detail below, demonstrates they were built in different time periods. Piranesi further argues this position in his view of the Pronaos from the Campus Martius in the image below. 
In these engravings Piranesi visually and mathematically corrected the measurements first introduced by Palladio in the Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (1570), the authoritative source for the design of the Pantheon. French architectural theorist Antoine Desgodetz (1653-1728) was one of the first authors to challenge Palladio’s measurements in his treatise Les Édifices antiques de Rome dessinés et mesurés très exactement (1682). Like Desgodetz, Piranesi emphasizes first-hand observation and criticized other authors’ reliance on authoritative texts. Nevertheless, in order to “satisfy the scholars [eruditi],” Piranesi provides extensive philological analysis of Pliny’s description of the Pantheon to date the temple in the index to his Pianta di Roma. The wealth of visual evidence Piranesi provides in the above view, however, renders this comment slightly mocking in tone, suggesting that textual commentary must be joined with visual observation for an accurate study of ancient architecture. 

The interior of the portico stages the distinction “between experiencing ancient architecture directly, through on-site examination, on the one hand, and studying it at several removes by means of measured drawings on the other” (Pinto 2012, 3). In this engraving, the Pantheon is a fount of inspiration and not just an architectural model, as it was in the measured drawings by Palladio, Alberti, Serlio, and others. Piranesi’s dramatic perspective, heightened by the scena per angolo and heavy shadow, along with the crumbling wall, pilasters, and faded ornamental details on the left, emphasize the emotional effect of encountering ruins in person; he even removes several columns to create the sense that the viewer is inside the structure (Van Eck 96). These details invite reflection on the sublime or offer inspiration for new imaginative architectural forms, and they also relay more objective information such as dates of restoration, measurements, and literary citation. 

Compared to Piranesi’s all-consuming and three-dimensional landscape, the images of the Pantheon’s portico by Palladio and Desgodetz above seem flat and inaccessible. In Piranesi’s image, viewers participate, almost corporeally, in the architect’s precise and on-site observations. Through the combination of the more direct experience of architecture in the veduta genre with the factual information in the abundant textual annotations, Piranesi sought to convince audiences of his argument. In the following view, he takes viewers further into the interior of the Pantheon to expand upon his revisions of previous sources. (ZL) 

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

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