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

The Digital Piranesi

Remains of the Temple of the God Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli

This and the following image reveal Piranesi’s close involvement in the archaeological study of a structure at Hadrian’s Villa that was and continues to be a challenge to identify. Titled “Ruins of the Temple of the god Canopus in Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli,” this print argues in its key that the temple must in fact belong not to Canopus but to Neptune: “crederei ch’egli dovesse appartenere al Dio Nettuno.” The conditional belief that Piranesi articulates in the annotation is justified. The name Canopus (the pilot of a ship in the Trojan War) appears in an ancient historical text as that of an unspecified structure at Hadrian’s Villa. It is unclear which building bore the name, and this structure is now believed to have been an open dining area (or scenic triclinium) with a vaulted ceiling, of which a portion collapsed. In its visual and verbal elements, this image alternates between certainty and conjecture, visual display and inaccessibility. The symmetrical boulders of the collapsed ceiling “close the foreground” (Pinto 1995, 258) of this image, creating an imposing boundary that makes the image seem inaccessible to viewers. The fallen ceiling, the standing ruin, and the key also create three levels of symmetry. At the center of this visually balanced image, three human figures, facing each other in a sliver of white ground, create a sense of inaccessibility. At odds with this visual symmetry and enclosure, two figures in the foreground, in front of the fallen vault, gesture dramatically with both arms towards the left of the image, and a third man glances over his shoulder in the same direction. If, as viewers, we are not asked to join the circle of the three men at the center of the image, we are certainly invited to follow the vertical line created by the gestures and glance of the three men in the foreground. Doing so, we see the letter D, which points to the key, where Piranesi conclusively identifies the fallen vault. The other alphabetic annotations all mark the temple’s materials and decorative elements, until an additional sentence that is separate from any alphabetic pointer suggests, based on absent evidence on the other side of the temple, a different designation for the temple. This word-image composite not only displays an ancient ruin but also traces a process of conjecture about architectural and historical details that are either accessible or unknown. (JB)

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

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