The Theater of Marcellus played a central role in Piranesi’s work and provided support for his theoretical positions about the magnificence of ancient Rome. This view is only one of at least fifteen renderings of the monument. Through the innovative combination of multiple perspectives - plans, cross-sections, views, and maps - Piranesi documented in painstaking detail one of the eternal city's earliest and most significant monuments. Departing from his contemporary vedutisti, Piranesi made the theatre the focus of the print, indicated by the title: Teatro di Marcello. For example, Piranesi's former mentor and chief competitor Giuseppe Vasi also famously portrayed the monument, though in Vasi's rendition the theatre is dwarfed, relegated to a corner of the composition and subsumed into the hustle and bustle of the square (the square is in fact the title: Piazza Montanara). Piranesi too displays a flurry of activity in the foreground, perhaps to appeal to visitors on the grand tour, the chief clientele of the Views of Rome. In the foreground, Piranesi shows viewers what they might encounter in a Roman piazza - horse-drawn carriages, market stalls, frolicking dogs, rogues, and well-to do citizens with their capes and high-brimmed hats. While these vignettes of daily life lend a certain authenticity to the theatre's surroundings, the perspective and style of the image are altered in ways that push the boundaries of the veduta genre.
Piranesi plays with the viewer's sense of reality by representing the monument from an impossible perspective, which allows him to provide as much information as possible about the site - its history and potential places of interest for visitors. For example, viewers can see a dome on the right, labelled with a number 2, corresponding to the renown Baroque church, Santa Maria in Campitelli. However, the dome would be impossible to see from this vantage point. Similarly, the history of the theatre is made visible by exposing all the levels of the building, both ancient and modern. Taking up the entire mid-ground with its imposing facade, Piranesi alters the perspective such that the grandeur of the ancient monument is revealed. Through various etching techniques, Piranesi distinguishes the ancient “solemnity” [“carattere di gravità”] of the building from its contemporary environment (Roman Antiquities, Vol. IV, fig. XXXV). The neat and shallow rectilinear lines of the eighteenth-century buildings are in sharp contrast to the blunt and curvilinear marks that render the worn and rough-hewn quality of the stones of the ancient theatre. Columns are effaced and the cornice is broken mid-course, yet the robust and massive stones of the theatre are rendered in greater relief and shadow. The seemingly immutable and everlasting nature of Roman buildings sharply contrasts with continuous changes that characterize the modern urban landscape.
Indeed, later additions to the monument are carefully articulated both visually and textually. The first annotations of the key recount the history of the building, so that it is immediately clear that the highest register, labeled number 1, can be identified with the 18th-century Palazzo Orsini. In both text and image, viewers can see how the palazzo was literally built on top of the ruins and how the theatre continued to be used as a residence until Piranesi's day. These details, namely the use and reuse of ancient ruins, recount a history of a building that is both alive and lived.
The contrast between ancient and modern and the visual emphasis on the materials of the monument speak to Piranesi’s “obsession with the virtues of stone construction” (Wilton-Ely, The Piranesi Effect, 59). In this architectural study of the monument, viewers are taken into the very foundations of the theater. Buried underground, the lowest registers of the monument are revealed in print through Piranesi’s imaginative reconstruction. Depicted from below, the stones seem to emerge as mountains and their interlocking construction demonstrates the ingenuity of Roman engineering. In his other architectural prints in the Roman Antiquities series, seen here for example, viewers might not be aware that there were modern interventions in the building at all (Dixon “Time Warp,” 122-3). These prints focus on architectural details such as columns in order to show how the theatre remarkably combined different architectural orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian), a feature that inspired the design of the Colosseum. Piranesi’s emphasis on the ancient architectural elements of the theater across multiple prints, and in particular the rendering of the stones, demonstrates his innovative elaboration of his position in the Graeco-Roman debate. Despite the tendency to consider the Views of Rome on its own, these connections put the vedute back into critical conversation with Piranesi's corpus of prints as a whole. (ZL)
Giuseppe Vasi, Piazza Montanara, c. 1752. Courtesy of University of Maryland, Baltimore.
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.