This page was created by Diem Dao.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

Pyramid of Caius Cestius

In this view, titled “Piramide de C. Cestio” [Pyramid of Caius Cestius], a seemingly massive structure, lengthened by a vantage point near ground-level, fills the full height of the image. Piranesi indicates the elevated ground level of the city, with its ancient level revealed at the base of the monument. The key, which describes this excavated earth as “Terreno sgombrato,” twice uses a form of the verb “sgombrare,” obsolete even in Piranesi’s day. Meaning “to clear out” or “to unencumber,” it lends an additional layer of antiquarianism to his description of the archaeological discovery of the two columns, which have, as the key further explains, been restored to their original positions at the pyramid’s corners.

Absorbed by the wall of the ancient city, which is indicated by numbered captions to its left and right, the pyramid marks the boundary of Rome. Piranesi’s etching techniques also emphasize a boundary between nature and culture, with the dramatic, erratic chiaroscuro of the trees and foliage on the right sharply contrasting with the gentle, linear shading and slight plant growth on the surface of the pyramid.  The dramatic shading extends to the expansive banderol that serves as the image caption, in front of which a gesturing figure seems to recline. This figure is set off against the white of the banderol and at least twice the size of the men who surround the pyramid’s door, which the key explains was opened during the excavations under Alexander VII. With this visual emphasis, this figure summons a consideration of the relationship that Piranesi persistently reimagined between word and image. While John Wilton-Ely has argued that this key’s appearance “serves to minimalize human identity in the gesturing figure placed in front of it” (1978, 37), the key and the reclining man are also equalized in their shared act of gesturing. A man who points with his finger reclines in front of and in fact interrupts a key that itself points, with annotations, to the monument, the surrounding wall, and the excavated earth. In this doubling of pointing gestures that are bodily and verbal, the immensity of the pyramid combines with the specificity of the key’s contents—both the pyramid’s physical features and its built environment, details of archaeological rediscovery and restoration. Jeanne Zarucchi has called attention to Piranesi’s titles, observing that his “views of” and “other views of” key monuments often suggest different visual and cultural perspectives of the same structure. Perhaps the title of this image, which notably does not include the word “veduta,” extends from its  emphatic gestures so as to suggest a near equivalence with the monument itself. (JB, ZL)

To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.

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