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 not only in Piranesi's œuvre, but also in 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 tomb's modern name, "Capo di Bove" ["Head of the Ox"], 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 foreground. Overgrown vegetation sprouts from the caption, as though it were itself 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 references in the annotations, labeled A and 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 lines. Despite the ravages of time and damage accrued by the multiple interventions in successive time periods, the stones gleam in perfection from the bright light 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 ago, they are on the verge of crumbling. Such visual opposition—light and dark, ancient and medieval, order and disorder—shed light on Piranesi's disparaging assessment of the medieval period, what he calls the "low times" or "dark ages" [“tempi bassi”] in the annotations. Piranesi thus draws a contrast between the architectural styles and methods of the modern period, to what he perceives as the unparalleled magnificence of ancient Roman architecture. Notable in this light is Piranesi's approach to periodization, that is, the categorization and evaluation of different architectural styles over time, which was a hotly debated issue during the eighteenth century among figures such as Winckelmann, David Le Roy, Fisher von Erlach, and Giambattista Vico, about cultural origins and the history of art and aesthetics.
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.