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

The Digital Piranesi

Remains of the Temple said to be of Apollo in Hadrian’s Villa

The earliest of Piranesi’s almost 15 engravings of sites in and around Tivoli is titled “Ruins of a temple said to be of Apollo.” Although Piranesi and his contemporaries are thought to have been mistaken—archaeologists now identify this structure a circular hall within a thermal complex—his cautious designation denotes uncertainty more than contemporary usage. To name this ruin in this way is to acknowledge the ongoing process of archaeological study, which proceeds from visible remains whose purposes are unknown to delving below the surface in order to determine those purposes. That process—uncovering layers of architectural matter and accumulated rubble—is suggested by the different engraving techniques in this image that convey textual variety in exposed layers of building material. In the foreground on the right, vines that appear almost white shroud cross-hatched stone, which itself emerges from the fragment’s outermost layer. Along with the narrow, darkened cross-sections of the building’s ruined walls, alternating light and shadow in this heavily-textured mass draw attention to fissures, gouges, and cracks. Barbara Maria Stafford has likened Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma to archaeological dissections, describing “his use of the etching needle as a creative surgical tool” that allows him to lead his viewers, like an anatomist, to uncover the hidden past by cutting away the layers that remain (Stafford 1991, 57, 65). While the composition and texture of this image hint at dissection’s methods of exposure and discovery, two indistinct human figures might further advance the comparison between engraver and surgeon. Two bodies appear partially obscured, almost as if severed, from the waist or the knees, on a lower level not visible in the recesses of the circular structure. Their segmented bodies suggest the portrait of Piranesi, by Francesco Polanzani (1700-c.1783), in which the living artist’s right arm appears to be the severed limb of an ancient statue, as if the artist has been transformed into an element of the ancient past he so obsessively preserves. (JB)

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

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