Following the four imposing and expansive views of the Colosseum grouped together in the Opere, this view of what was commonly known as the Curia Hostilia seems restricted by its subject matter. This engraving uses a variety of visual indications to convey information about the different levels—under and above ground, beyond and within view—of this structure. Piranesi’s title explains one use of this building, as the location of cages for the wild animals (which he refers to as “fiere,” literally “wild, fierce beasts”) that were part of the savage entertainments staged in the Colosseum. While this image emphasizes people’s contemporary engagement with the structure, this plate from the fourth volume of Antichità Romane offers a desolate cross-section of the structure’s built layers that are, in this image, presented through verbal indication and visual suggestion. A group of tourists to the left in the foreground point to the arches above, as do both of Piranesi’s annotations. A ladder on the left and another on the right are perched against a wall, and a third leads down to the former “primo piano” [ground floor] that is now buried in ruins. Excavations there, the complete text of Piranesi’s lengthy title explains, revealed that the walls on that level were, like those visible on the contemporary ground-level floor, made of travertine. The letter “A” indicates, three times, marks or indentations where geometric stones completed the arches, and “B” points out, also three times, walls constructed during the middle ages, which Piranesi disparagingly refers to as the “tempi bassi” [low times]. The building is presented here as a site of contemporary observation (through the eyes of the tourists), recent excavation (suggested by the ladder that leads down), and centuries of ruination and rebuilding (in the annotations). With visual and verbal cues, Piranesi reveals, within the restricted visual range that the veduta offers here, an expansive material history. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.