This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Capitoline Hill with the Steps leading to Santa Maria in Aracoeli

This view of the Capitoline Hill is one of Piranesi's earliest etchings in the Views of Rome. In the early 1740's he produced a set of ten etchings, including the view above, for the Roman collector and bibliophile, Alessandro Gregorio Capponi (Battaglia). The earliest collection of Piranesi’s views, called the Capponi set and held in the Vatican libraries, attests to Piranesi's initial foray into the large-scale, folio size vedute, a genre popularized by Piranesi’s teacher Giuseppe Vasi, Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto), and Bernardo Bellotto. Scholars often highlight the similarity of the composition of this early etching of the Capitoline Hill to those of his contemporaries (Wilton-Ely 32, Nevola 65). Yet it is clear by viewing them together, in the gallery below, that Piranesi, even in this early stage, made the genre his own.
Piranesi’s experimentation with oblique perspective, exaggerated scale, and theatrical lighting anticipates the dramatic and sublime characteristics of his later views. For example, the zig-zag effect of light and shadow on the left creates a sense of movement by leading the eye to the rough and unadorned façade of the church of Santa Maria Araceli. Through the grooves in the dirt left behind the carriage on the right, it is as though we are right behind them, ready to ascend to the hill. The water dripping off of the basins from the two flanking lionesses "made from Egyptian marble," work almost like a photograph, capturing a singular and ephemeral memory, placing viewers in the moment of the etching’s creation. Here, the life of the city is palpable, whereas in the works by Canaletto, Bellotto, and Falda, the city lacks vitality, and sound and movement are sacrificed for the sake of architectural order and symmetry. The regularity of the axis lines creates a pristine, flat quality. Piranesi deliberately makes these lines oblique. The buildings are all at different heights, the houses on the left are piled up on top of another, the vestiges of the old buildings jut out of the base of the stairs on the left, and rubble and dirt occupy the foreground on the right. Such chaos is perhaps a metaphor for the disordered palimpsest of different styles that characterized the architectural space of the Capitoline Hill. Medieval and Renaissance buildings were built on ancient Roman foundations, which caused their differing heights and absence of regularity. Any sense of architectural design and order that can be found—in the main staircase (or cordonata), the campanile and façade of the Roman Senatorial Palace, or the framing balustrade of the square—reveals the interventions of Renaissance artist Michelangelo, to whom Piranesi refers in his title. 

In a further departure from Canaletto and Bellotto, the oblique perspective and supplemental key below the image provided Piranesi with the space to pack the visual field with the maximum amount of information, a hallmark of Piranesi’s archeological publications such as the Antichità Romane. In this sense, the engraving has more in common with Giovanni Battista Falda’s seventeenth-century print, which also contains annotations that label significant monuments. However, even Falda’s more documentary style is flat when compared to dramatic chiaroscuro of Piranesi's etching. Even in this early, somewhat traditional view, are seeds of Piranesi’s experimentation with perspective and lighting effects, which are taken even further in the following views of the Capitoline Hill. (ZL)

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

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