Piranesi’s three views of the Baths of Diocletian highlight different aspects of the monument’s history: reuse, restoration, and ruin. This first view shows how various parts of the complex were adapted for modern use. For example, Piranesi notes in the textual key that the upper levels of the baths comprise the modern-day church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the majority of which “è occupata da un grande Ospizio de’ Padri Certosini.” Unlike contemporary artists, such as Giuseppe Vasi, who titled their views of this thermal complex according to its modern name, Piranesi retains the ancient name, the “Baths of Diocletian,” perhaps to call attention to the few ancient “avanzi” of the title that are still visible despite centuries of reuse.
Originally built in the fourth century under Maximian and dedicated to Diocletian, the baths were one of the largest complexes in Rome. Despite their vast size, which can be seen in the third view, the baths were not in use for very long and served mostly as a quarry until they were converted into a church during the Renaissance. Piranesi takes a critical stance toward this particular form of reuse in the preface to the Antichità Romane, stating that ancient ruins “vengono a diminuirsi di giorno in giorno o per l’ingiuria de’ tempi, o per l’avarizia de’ possessori, che con Barbara licenza li vanno clandestinamente atterrando, per venderne i frantumi all’uso degli edifizi moderni” (Antichità Romane, p.1). Indeed, Piranesi observes in the caption’s first annotation that one part of the baths was being used as a granary. Notably, the chaotic rubble in the foreground features bales of hay, which block the beholder’s visual access to the ancient ruins. Perhaps the bales of hay, broken shards of ancient marble, and discarded fluted columns in the image’s foreground comment on this question of reuse by metaphorically inhibiting our understanding of the complex’s original architecture. Piranesi expresses a more positive assessment of the interior restoration of the baths, the subject of the next view. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.