This view of the Baths of Trajan (not, as Piranesi and historians since the sixteenth century thought, the Baths of Titus) offers a rare elevated perspective on its particular subject as well as time and space. The vantage point allows for a wide expanse of the thermal bath complex, which was one of the largest in ancient Rome. While Piranesi’s preference for perspectives from below is clear throughout the Vedute di Roma, other elevated perspectives on ancient ruins (the Forum, the Colosseum, the Antinonine Baths) also manage to convey, at times from impossible positions, the extent and magnitude of Rome’s architectural force within the cramped confines of the eighteenth-century city. This elevated view allows the lower level of the thermal complex to be seen beneath the accumulation of rubble and soil that, here and nearly everywhere in Rome, literally builds upon the past. Trees and mounds of earth compete for the viewer’s attention in what almost appears to be a landscape view until overgrown architectural fragments can be differentiated from the gnarled trees in the foreground and in the distance. The human figures that populate this view only emphasize its desolation—the baths were deserted by the fifth century—but also suggest that the site continues to be a meeting place of sorts, now for ragged men and weary shepherds instead of the more refined citizens of the Imperial period.
If the overwhelming visual composition of the image provides little guidance in where to look, the annotations provide some guidance and structure. They offer “a temporal dimension to the otherwise detached objects” and suggest, with alphabetic order, a connection both among isolated fragments and with their viewers (Ferri 98). In the center of the image is the second story of the structure, now at ground level, marked by “A.” Ragged lines in the ground that begin in the lower left of the image resemble earthen stairs that descend to the “piano inferiore” [lower level] marked by “B.” In the distance, “C” then indicates ruins of the theater that was part of the thermal complex, which appears again in the following view. Theatrical design played a major role in Piranesi’s aesthetic development. He draws especially upon the perspectives afforded by the principle of scena per angolo, according to which multiple diagonal lines create complex spatial arrangements (see Wilton-Ely 1988, 10; Dixon 2016; Rapp). Here, the ruins of an ancient theater themselves seem to offer the kind of new vista offered by complex stage design. When turning the page from this image to the following view of the same site, viewers experience something almost like a set change between one theatrical scene and another. Pivoting on one of the items identified in the key, viewers shift their orientation, in position and elevation, when presented with one central ruin surrounded by smaller ruins—including the theater—from below. (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.