In this image, Piranesi takes his viewers across the bridge seen in the previous view to the foundations the family tomb of Plautius Lucanus. Angled from the left, the torsion of perspective exaggerates the scale of the monument to emphasize the magnificence of the tomb's construction. The characteristic stringcourses of travertine blocks extend beyond the border of the plate, leaving viewers to imagine the gargatuan proportions of the tomb. Piranesi reveals in the previous print that the tomb can only be seen in its entirety from a great distance. Further reinforcing the large scale in both views of the tomb are the human figures. In this view, they barely reach the base of the tomb. Fragments of the massive travertine blocks on the left additionally demonstrate the immensity of the tomb's dimensions. In contrast to Piranesi's more documentary views of the monument in the Antichità Romane(1, 2, 3), this dramatic view uses extreme contrast in shading, composition, and perspective to evoke a sense of the sublime and awe-inspiring nature of ancient funerary monuments.
Such theatrical effects are achieved by the sharp diagonal in the center of the composition, which puts the inscriptions outside the tomb in relief. Cutting across the upper left of the plate, the parallel line of the shadow acts almost like a curtain, where the tomb itself seemingly provides more of a theatrical backdrop for the partially obscured inscriptions. While the skewed perspective heightens the pathos of the view, it also compromises the legibility of the inscriptions. Through the diagonal block of shadow, the right inscription is submerged in darkness. The dramatic light on the central inscription makes it "readable," yet the letters are slanted. Here, however, Piranesi seems to imply that the past can never be fully reconstructed, even when inscriptions--considered one of the most important sources of archaeological knowledge--are found intact. Highlighting this fact is the way the modern title of the print, seen on the bottom right, mimics the ancient lapidary slabs of the monument above. Yet the title, by appearing in italics, a modern script, and not in ancient capitals, disorients viewers as to what belongs to the past or to the present, or even to the realm of reality or representation.
Piranesi's tricks of light and perspective call attention to the legibility, or rather illegibility, of the ruins, which conveyed a fragmentary and remote past. The emphasis on writing in this engraving of the tomb shows "Piranesi's lifelong attempt to inscribe order - legibility - on what remained" (Wendorf, 168). At the same time, Piranesi perhaps questioned the extent to which ruins could be 'read.' Piranesi, like his Renaissance predecessors, recognized that inscriptions and the architectural fragments that contained them, were also images (Barkan, 27). Through the genre of the veduta Piranesi perhaps attempted to emphasize the visual, as well as verbal, dimensions of interpreting antiquity. (ZL)
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.