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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Roman Forum (1 of 2)

The 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 the hub of tourism that it is still today. The Forum was considered 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. 


The first of three views of the Forum provides a panorama of the entire site, and it functions 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 served not only as a map but also 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 53-60), and they initiated his career in the veduta genre. By pointing to these particular monuments, this view forms the visual counterpart to Piranesi’s print catalog, 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.


The business generated by the Grand Tour is further highlighted by the prevalence of ciceroni, or tour guides hired by well-to-do tourists, who theatrically gesture to the ancient ruins throughout the print. On the right, two dilettantes stand atop a fragment— which cannot be distinguished 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 neglected 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 its 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 and the Romantic period. 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 1991, 64), and a sense of permanence that resisted the ravages of time. (ZL)

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

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