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.