This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

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 distinctions between the ancient and modern elements of the Pantheon’s interior. Two massive columns frame but also 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 concerning its dating. The disorientation that viewers of this print might experience resembles the challenge, which Piranesi often confronts, of distinguishing original and modern architectural elements. After several major interventions in its long historyits conversion into a church called Santa Maria ad Martyres, flooding, other damage, and many papal restoration campaignsthe Pantheon’s interior includes multiple layers that can be difficult to identify. 

Piranesi’s intense archeological interest in its material history reflects his antiquarian approach to architectural history and restoration. Rather than relying on measurements, as he does in the previous view, Piranesi repeatedly relies on the evidence of 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 “tutto antico” and highlights the fact that the 12 principal columns are of yellow marble, as the two in the Tribunal, and 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 the use of this material, one of the most scarce and expensive mined from the colonies (Gnoli 166-8; Röder 91-96). Piranesi dates other elements based on their materials: “li otto altari minori sono antichi, come ancora il pavimento composto di giallo, di granito, e di porfido.” By contrast, the second order, or upper story, was “moderno a riserva della cornice di marmo ch’è antica.” The altar was also designated 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 (cited in Pasquali 339). In response, Pope Benedict XIV, Piranesi explains, removed the “le incrostazioni di marmo, di porfido, di giallo, e di serpentino che l’adornavano, [...] perche minacciavano ruina” and had them adorned with stucco. 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 a 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 papal 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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