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 in his numbered caption. The dome on the right (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 what he notes in another image as the ancient “carattere di gravità” of the building from its contemporary environment. 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 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 (1) can be identified with the eighteenth-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 staunch support of Roman magnificence 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)