In the key’s lengthy expository text, Piranesi praises equally “the exquisite delicateness and arrangement of the carvings” and the “weightiness and majesty of the structure.” A key term in Piranesi's vocabulary, sodezza, or weightiness, attested to the quality of Roman engineering. For example, Piranesi notes that the columns were astonishingly constructed “from only one piece of marble.” Piranesi argues that these features allowed buildings such as the Temple of Jupiter Tonans to survive for a millennium, even when exposed to the destructive forces of nature (in this case, a fire that almost consumed the entire Forum in the third century). The exaggerated scale of the image further stresses the massive structure of the temple. Erupting from the ground below, the herculean columns quite literally overshadow the miniscule and unadorned modern buildings on the right. Every minutia of the Temple—cracks and ruptures, delicate vegetal forms of the cornice, the decorative armature in the frieze, individual acanthus leaves of the capitals—is depicted in detail and in high relief. These visual details, brought out by Piranesi’s novel play with chiaroscuro, additionally support his arguments about the significance of ornament.
Rather than occupying a secondary role, the ornamental intagli, or reliefs, that adorn the building are what in fact convey the “majesty” of the Temple. The role of ornament was a key point of contention in eighteenth-century scholarly debates about architectural theory, and it is no accident that Piranesi uses the adjective “ornato” here. Prevailing opinion in architectural circles both in Italy and across Europe was that ornament was a distraction from the nobility and soundness of the basic design of a building. This opinion was shared, for example, by Piranesi's mentor in architecture Carlo Lodoli. Piranesi took another, more controversial, position. In one of Piranesi’s most polemical writings, the Letter to Monsieur Mariette (1765), the artist declares: “In such art, as in nature, the eyes will not see confusion but a beautiful and pleasing arrangement [disposizione] of things. And, in truth, if the ornaments used in architecture are beautiful themselves, then the architecture will also be beautiful. Why choose to give the eyes a single pleasure, such as that of looking at a piece of architecture, when we can give them the twofold pleasure of seeing it clothed in ornament, since we can see our way to reconciling the two?” (Beamish & Britt 113). Using the very same terms in the text of the veduta, Piranesi points to how the “exquisite delicateness and arrangement [disposizione]” of the reliefs embody the very grandeur of the temple itself. (ZL)
To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.