This is a close-up of the previous view, centering on what is there twice labelled “B,” the arches that covered the Xystus, or grand hall, of the Baths of Caracalla (also called the Thermae Antoninianae). In the arrangement of the Opere, pairs or in some cases small groups of views of the same monument appear in a pattern: in the first, an exterior or aerial view includes copious annotation, and, in the second, a close-up or interior view includes more specific visual detail but little or no annotation. This pattern describes the transition from his dazzling aerial view of the Colosseum to the following image in the Opere’s sequence, an interior view of Colosseum, which also depicts irregular, hulking shapes. It also describes the paired views of the Baths of Titus, the first of which offers an aerial view of another thermal complex while the second focuses on one ruined structure from a worm’s eye view. Here, the contrast between architectural regularity and natural disorder appears in both composition and technique.
Misshapen, indistinguishable masses and the disordered effects of ruination are presented from a perspective that nevertheless conjures, with the sharp diagonal across the top of those masses, the regularity of architectural forms. Piranesi’s etching needle renders the material detail of the grand hall’s arches with short rigid lines, which suggest measured uniformity. Elsewhere, he uses wispy, curved strokes to depict botanical growth, whose irregularity threatens to conceal the ordered shapes of the original structure. The lack of annotation in this etching, especially when compared to the detailed key in the previous view that labels this hall twice, suggests that there is—when looking closely, or when probing interiors—a resistance to legibility or identification. This pattern reveals what Richard Wendorf has called Piranesi’s “lifelong effort to inscribe order—legibility—on what remained of the Roman past” (162). In the paired views of the Colosseum, the Baths of Titus, and these views of the Baths of Caracalla, it seems that this effort reaches its end, first producing word-image composites in annotated views but then yielding dramatic and largely wordless images that suggest both the power of visual experience and the limits of verbal description. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.