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

The Digital Piranesi

Tomb of Cecilia Metella

Soft, ephemeral, and lightly etched clouds provide a jarring contrast to the heavy, round, robust Tomb of Cecilia Metella—a structure that exemplified Roman ingenuity and engineering to Piranesi. The ancient tomb looms large in Piranesi’s œuvre and the composition of this engraving, expanding and pushing outward so that all that remains rests in its shadow. Stones above the architrave and frieze of bucrania, from which the tombs modern name, “Capo di Bove,” derives, are literally larger than life, taller and wider than the full length of the human figures in the foreground. Barely visible is the caption in the lower left. In an evocative use of trompe-l’œil, overgrown vegetation sprouts from the caption, as though it were itself a broken piece of travertine from the damaged cornice of the tomb. Enhancing this effect are the two figures that sit and stand upon the jagged rock. One gestures upward to the ancient tomb, the other to the medieval additions that Piranesi himself points to in the annotations (A, B). The shadow of the seated and contorted figure artfully interrupts not only the title of the print, but also the line between reality and representation.

The opposing gestures combined with the fragmented title reflect the way the tomb itself is fragmented in time, an amalgamation of both ancient and modern. Emphasizing the order and rationalism of Roman architecture, the travertine stones of the lower level of the tomb are etched with precise rectilinear strokes. Despite the ravages of time and damage accrued by the multiple interventions in successive time periods, the stones gleam in perfection under the bright light that is cast from the left. By contrast, the medieval crenellation of the upper register of the tomb, as well the series of arches that fade into the background on the right, are disordered, diminutive, and submerged in shadow. Despite the fact that they were built only hundreds of years before
Piranesi’s time, they are on the verge of crumbling. Such visual oppositions—light and dark, ancient and medieval, order and disorder—illuminate Piranesi’s disparaging assessment of the medieval period, which he here calls the “tempi bassi.” Piranesi thus draws a contrast between the architectural styles and methods of the modern period and what he perceives as the unparalleled magnificence of ancient Roman architecture. This visual and verbal emphasis on Roman antiquity grants this image a role in eighteenth-century arguments about periodization, the cultural origins of architecture, and the history of art. (ZL)

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

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