The Theater of Marcellus appears in at least fifteen of Piranesi’s works, providing support for his theory of the magnificence of ancient Rome. Departing from his contemporary vedutisti, he made the theatre the focus of this print, as indicated by the title. In Giuseppe Vasi’s view "Piazza Montanara" (1752), the theater is dwarfed, relegated to a corner of the composition and subsumed into the hustle and bustle of the square that provides the print’s title. Piranesi also shows the activity of 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 urban vignettes lend a certain authenticity to the theatre’s surroundings and cater, perhaps, to Piranesi’s intended market of grand tourists, the perspective and style of the image are altered in ways that push the boundaries of the veduta genre.
Piranesi represents the theater from an impossible perspective that emphasizes the grandeur of the ancient monument and allows him to provide as much information as possible about the present-day site. The dome on the right, labelled “2,” belongs to the renowned Baroque church, Santa Maria in Campitelli, but it would be impossible to see from the vantage point this image adopts. Similarly, the history of the theatre is made visible by exposing the ancient and modern levels of the building. Through various etching techniques, Piranesi distinguishes the ancient “solemnity” [“carattere di gravità”] of the building from its contemporary environment (Antichità Romane, 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 ancient theater’s stones. 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. As a result, 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, clarifying that the highest register, labeled “1,” can be identified with the 18th-century Palazzo Orsini. In text and image, viewers can both see how the palazzo was literally built on top of the ruins and consider the history of a building that is surrounded and filled with human life. The contrast between ancient and modern and the visual emphasis on building materials speak to Piranesi’s fascination with the methods and materials of stone construction. In this architectural study, Piranesi’s imaginative reconstruction reveals the monument’s lowest registers. Depicted from below, the stones seem to emerge as mountains, and their interlocking construction demonstrates the ingenuity of Roman engineering. In other images of the theater in the Antichità Romane there is even less indication of modern interventions in the building (Dixon 2005, 122-3). Across these multiple prints, Piranesi’s emphasis on the theater’s ancient architectural elements—the combination of architectural orders and the rendering of the stones—conveys his position in the Graeco-Roman debate. This view, while aimed at tourists, also illustrates Piranesi’s polemical claims about the longevity and superiority of Roman architecture. (ZL)