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 gargantuan proportions of the tomb. Piranesi reveals in the previous print that the tomb can only be seen in its entirety from a great distance. In both views, human figures further reinforce the large scale of the tomb. In this view, they barely reach the base of the tomb; additionally, fragments of the massive travertine blocks on the left convey the tomb’s immensity. In contrast to Piranesi’s more documentary views of the monument in the seen , , and , this dramatic view uses extreme contrast in shading, composition, and perspective to suggest the sublime 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 legible, yet the letters are slanted. As such, 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 imitation of the monument’s ancient lapidary slabs in the print’s modern title, seen on the bottom right. Yet the title, by appearing in italics and a modern script, rather than 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 convey a fragmentary and remote past. Piranesi’s emphasis on writing here demonstrates his “lifelong attempt to inscribe order—legibility—on what remained” (Wendorf, 168). At the same time, he 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 attempted to emphasize the visual, as well as verbal, dimensions of interpreting antiquity. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.