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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Sepulcher of Piso Licinianus on the Ancient Appian Way

This engraving is unique in the Vedute di Roma for having no clearly designated title, an imprecision that extends to its generic status. 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 tombs (C). The first annotation begins, in fact, with what seems like a title for the image: “Veduta del Sepolcro di Pisone Liciniano.” However, the specificity of the annotations does not fully identify the subject of the engraving. 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, who resemble “a troupe of commedia dell’arte characters who have found themselves stranded in the campagna,” takes place (Stewart 176). 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 hidden layers.

For example, in the close-up below, Piranesi employs cross-hatching on the rough surface of the smaller tomb (B) to show how it has been “stripped of its ornaments.” Several pieces of the wall in the
façade 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 material of both interior and exterior was “tutto di terra cotta.” 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, impossible from direct observation alone, could not be achieved without Piranesi’s extreme manipulation of space and scale. Disrupting viewers’ sense of time and space, Piranesi depicts the tombs in various states of decay and creates a “diachronic sense of the past, to polarize and thus accentuate the distance between the visible present and the unseen past” and invites viewers to participate in a “metaphorical excavation” of the site (Dixon 2005, 124, 125). Piranesi often depicted the hidden parts of ancient Roman buildings in his archaeological publications in order to demonstrate their construction. Notable is the way these untitled illustrations supply 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 key. This type of image departs considerably from a more traditional veduta, such as that of the Roman Forum. While the view of ancient tombs above shares the layout and archaeological subject matter of the images in the Antichità Romane, 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 veduta. Within the Vedute di Roma, this engraving offers a unique combination of vedutismo and archaeology. (ZL)

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

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