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The Digital Piranesi

Interior view of the Pantheon

In this view, Piranesi’s narrative caption addresses a matter of fierce debate and scholarly interest—architectural restoration—through the specific distinction between the ancient and modern architectural elements of the Pantheon’s interior. Two massive columns frame but block full visual and corporeal access to the Pantheon’s grand interior. Piranesi positions his viewers in the lateral chapel and uses a perspective that is, compared to the main axis of the entrance and high altar, disorienting and decentered. Here, and in the previous view, Piranesi subverts expectations about the Pantheon in order to foreground his visual argument about the dating of the monument. The disorientation that viewers of this print might experience resembles the challenge, which Piranesi often confronts, of distinguishing original and modern architectural elements. The monument's interior underwent several major interventions in its long history. Due to its conversion into a church called Santa Maria ad Martyres, flooding, other damage, and many papal restoration campaigns, the Pantheon includes multiple layers of history that can be difficult to identify. 

Piranesi’s intense archeological interest in the material history of the Pantheon reflects his antiquarian approach to architectural history and restoration. Rather than relying on measurements, as he does in the previous view, Piranesi refers here to building materials in order to date the Pantheon’s interior. Notably, his verbal argument appears in narrative prose instead of annotations, a form of commentary he uses to convey assertions that are either conjectural, such as his imagined account of the construction of the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, or subjective, such as his claims about the significance of ornament to architectural design in this view of the Temple of Jupiter Tonans. Here, for example, he claims that “the first order is entirely ancient,” highlighting the fact that the “twelve principal columns are of yellow marble, as the two in the Tribunal, which have never been removed from their original position.” He notes that the two columns in the foreground are made of yellow marble, a material that originated in Chemtou in Tunisia. The Pantheon was a striking example of yellow marble’s use in imperial architecture, particularly as it was one of the most scarce and expensive materials mined from the colonies (Gnoli 166-8; Röder 91-96). Piranesi further identifies the date of other elements of the temple through its materials: “the eight minor altars are ancient, as well as the floor composed of yellow marble, granite, and porphyry.” By contrast, the second order, or upper story, was “modern except the cornice of marble, which is ancient.” The altar was also “modern,” recently redesigned after the crumbling and stylistically inconsistent medieval altar (formerly the ancient ciborium) was demolished (Pasquali 339-41). The new design, completed in the early eighteenth century, is featured on the right of the engraving. 

During this time, the Pantheon was in such a ruinous state that it was characterized as “a corpse bared of all its ornaments” in the premier literary journal of the time, the Giornale dei Letterati (Pasquali, 339). In response, Pope Benedict XIV, Piranesi explains, removed the “the encrustation of marble, porphyry, yellow, and serpentine, because they were in danger of falling down” and had them “adorned with stucco as one sees presently.” These changes were a matter of direct experience for Piranesi, and he conveys that immediacy visually: the ladder on the left suggests that such restorations, which viewers seem to stumble upon, were taking place at the time of the print’s publication.  

The restoration and renewal of the Pantheon came under ecclesiastic jurisdiction in Piranesi’s lifetime (Dixon 2004, 63; Pasquali 343-4). His textual keys detail recent episodes of papal intervention. Piranesi recounts the rather infamous case of Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) stripping and melting down the ancient bronze of the portico’s coffers in order to construct the baldachin in St. Peter’s Basilica, replacing them with simple wooden trusses. This led to the saying at the time: “quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini.” He also notes that Benedict XIV restored the bronze doors in 1757 in addition to repurposing the granite from the lateral walls for the Vatican Museum. This kind of alteration expressed not only the authority of the church but also its ability to “control the presentation of its history” (Dixon 2004, 64). The Pantheon was a significant example of “Christian antiquarianism” and the successful preservation of an ancient monument through Christian re-use (Pasquali 334). Piranesi details the restoration campaigns by Benedict XIV in particular, who supported the Accademia del Disegno, an academy of which Piranesi was a member. In this way, the two engravings of the Pantheon’s interior combine a dedication letter with archeological history and provide readers with a direct encounter with that historical study. (ZL)

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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