This elevated view allows the lower level of the thermal complex to be seen beneath the accumulation of rubble and soil that, here and throughout 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 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 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 (A). Ragged lines in the ground that begin in the lower left of the image resemble earthen stairs that descend to the “piano inferiore” (B); in the distance are ruins of the theater that was part of the thermal complex (C), which appears again in the following view. Theatrical design played a major role in Piranesi’s aesthetic development. Here, the ruins of an ancient theater themselves seem to offer the kind of new vista offered by the principles of theatrical design that informed his compositions. 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.