The roman forum was and continues to be among the best preserved sites of ancient Rome. Ruins of triumphal arches, temples, and theaters revealed the city’s multi-layered history, from its origins as the center of Roman politics, to a medieval cattle market – referred to in Piranesi’s title, Campo Vaccino [cow field], to the site of papal processions, and finally to a hub of tourism (much as it is today). The forum was considered to be essential to the formal education of both artists and grand tourists, and inspired many from Petrarch and Turner to Goethe and Piranesi to record their impressions in letters, prints, poems, and drawings.
Seen from above, the first among three views of the forum, provides a panorama of the entire site and functioned primarily as a tourist map. Piranesi depicts and labels all of the must-see landmarks on the Grand Tour itinerary including such highlights as the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. The print was not only a map, but also served as an advertisement. The monuments labeled in the image and in the key were among the first that Piranesi depicted individually in the Views of Rome series (Bevilacqua, "Roma di Piranesi," 53-60) and jumpstarted his career in the veduta genre. By pointing to these particular monuments, the print forms the visual counterpart to Piranesi's print catalog (add link), which included the Views of Rome as well as his other works such as the Roman Antiquities. Indeed, tourists could conveniently purchase individual views or the entire series in Piranesi’s print shop only a short distance away.
The business generated by the Grand Tour is further highlighted by the prevalence of ciceroni, or tour guides hired by well-to-do tourists, that theatrically gesture to the ancient ruins throughout the print. On the right, two dilettantes stand atop a fragment - deliberately ambiguous in its composition as natural or man-made - pointing to the forum below. The cast of characters in the foreground seem to be deliberately placed so as to accentuate the juxtaposition between the neglected disjecta of ancient fragments in the foreground and the grandeur of the ancient past displayed in the background. While Piranesi's contemporaries tended to portray the forum in an idyllic manner, he places a curious emphasis on the crumbling ruins. Perhaps Piranesi sought to inspire viewers to ruminate on the idea of the ruin and the histories it embodied – a topic of particular literary and artistic fascination in the Enlightenment (Ferri, Ruins Past, 2). The interrupted arches and broken columns could be considered a symbol of irrevocable loss, yet for Piranesi, they "invoked the invisible integrity of an absent corporeality" (Stafford, Body Criticism, 64), and a sense of permanence that resisted the ravages of time.
To see this image in Veduta di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.