This page was created by Diem Dao.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Sepulcher of Licinianus on the ancient Appian Way

        This engraving is unique in the Views of Rome for having no clearly designated title. The subject of the print can be partially deduced from the supplemental key at the center of the image, in which Piranesi labels the ruins as the sepulchers of Pisone Liciniano (A), the Cornelia family (B), and “other unidentified tombs” (C). However, the specificity of the annotations does not necessarily make the subject of any more clear. The Tomb of Licinianus is the largest tomb and rendered in greatest detail, but the "unidentified" fragments appear closest to the viewer in the foreground where the action of the human figures takes place. Appearing as a fictive stone slab, the caption itself is also deceptive. Hidden among the pieces of broken stone, the caption is like the massive ruins depicted in the engraving, incomplete. Yet, it is through their fragmentary nature that Piranesi exposes the layers underneath. For example, in the close-up below, Piranesi employs cross-hatching to the rough surface of the tomb B to show how it has been “stripped of its ornaments.” Several pieces of the wall in the facade of the Liciniano tomb (A) have been removed to reveal the layering of the brick. The use of brick in both the exterior and interior provides evidence of Piranesi's supposition that the composition of both interior and exterior "was made entirely of terracotta." Whether the inner structure was 'revealed' by nature or by Piranesi is deliberately ambiguous. This density of information is elaborated by Piranesi’s use of two-point perspective, such that it is possible to examine the tombs from different angles and in a singular pictorial plane. This enhanced view could not be achieved if not for Piranesi’s extreme manipulation of space and scale. In other words, this view would be impossible to see from direct observation. Furthermore, Piranesi depicts the tombs in various states of decay, disrupting viewer's sense of time and space, creating a "diachronic sense of the past, to polarize and thus accentuate the distance between the visible present and the unseen past" (2005, Dixon, 125).

        By documenting the unseen, viewers participate in a "metaphorical excavation" of the site (2005, Dixon, 124). Piranesi often depicted the hidden parts of ancient Roman buildings in his archeological publications, in order to demonstrate how they were constructed. Notable is the way these illustrations also supply no title, but only a list of annotations. For example, the engraving from the Antichità Romane seen in the gallery above, shows the materials, structure, and construction methods of an ancient aqueduct in the image and annotated key. This type of image departs considerably from a more traditional veduta, such as the one of the Roman Forum in the Views of Rome, also seen in the gallery above. While the view of ancient tombs above shares the layout and archeological subject matter of the Antichità Romane illustrations, the gothic 'scarecrow' figures in the foreground and sublime nature of the ruins, surrounded by an outgrowth of vegetation and roiling clouds, adhere more to the style of the view. This unique combination of vedutismo and archeology makes this engraving an interesting case for the study of the Views of Rome.

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

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