The Digital Piranesi
This page was created by Erin Jones. The last update was by Jeanne Britton.
View of the Capitoline Hill with the Steps leading to Santa Maria in Aracoeli
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. From the grooves that are visible in the dirt left behind the carriage on the right, it is as though we are in fact behind them, ready to ascend to the hill. The water dripping off of the basins from the two flanking lionesses “di marmo Egizio,” 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, and the regularity of the axis lines creates a pristine, flat quality. Piranesi, by contrast, deliberately makes these lines oblique. The buildings are all at different heights, the houses on the left are piled on top of one 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 invokes 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 irregularity. 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 provided Piranesi with the space to pack the visual field with the maximum amount of information. In this sense, the engraving has more in common with Falda’s seventeenth-century print, whose annotations also label significant monuments. However, Falda’s more documentary style is flat when compared to the 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 frontal and side views of the Capitoline Hill that follow. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.