This view of the Baths of Trajan (not, as Piranesi and historians since the 16th 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, to be seen. While Piranesi’s preference for perspectives from below is clear throughout the Views of Rome, 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 are 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 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 early Republic. If the visual composition of the image provides no [guidance in where to look], the annotations offer “a temporal dimension to the otherwise detached objects” that suggest, with alphabetic order, a connection both among isolated fragments and with their viewer (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 lower level [“piano inferiore”] 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 an 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; and 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 pivot on one of the items identified in the key, and their orientation shifts, in position and elevation, when presented with one central ruin surrounded by smaller ruins—including the theater—from below.
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.