This engraving depicts an architectural interior, emphatically enclosed by successive archways, and naturally overgrown, reinforced by curved, hanging vines. It is inaccurately identified in the caption as the ruins of a statue gallery near Hadrian’s Villa, but Francesco accurately referred to it as the passageway to baths in the “Pianta delle fabriche esistenti nella Villa Adriana” published, three years after Giovanni’s death, in 1781. The near symmetry of the archways is interrupted by the small key, which presents the title and minimal information. In the caption, “A” indicates remains of decorative frescoes visible in the upper-right corner. Similar frescoes from Hadrian’s villa are reproduced in Piranesi’s Vasi, Candelabri, Sarcofagi, Tripodi Lucerne et Ornamenti Antichi, which includes copies of urns, lamps, and decorative motifs. The key, in the foreground, points in a diagonal line across the surface of inner, undisturbed arched space, to elements that are, like the key, also in the foreground of the image. This indexical reference creates a two-dimensional line, between the caption and the key, that remains on the surface of the three-dimensional space of the interior; reading the key does not lead a viewer into the image, at least, not in a pursuit of objective information. Instead, the viewer is led visually by successive arches and alternating light and shadow into the misnamed sculpture gallery, populated now with living human forms. To populate what is assumed to be a sculpture gallery with human figures engaged in varied postures, stances, and gestures is to suggest a comparison between living life forms and immobile statuary, a comparison that in this print is appropriately framed by “the picturesque contrast” of the cross-vault delicately overgrown with botanical life (Pinto 1995, 258). As such, while the image’s key records works of decorative art that, today, no longer exist, its visual comparison between art (statues, architecture) and life (human beings, plants) makes it “an essay on the transience of the works of mankind” (Campbell 585). (JB)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.