This page was created by Erin Jones.  The last update was by Zoe Langer.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Temple of Jupiter Tonans

Piranesi considered the Temple of Jupiter Tonans, today identified as the Temple of Vespasian, one of the most splendid examples of ancient Roman architecture. In fact, the previous veduta of this site prominently positions the temple, which stands at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and thus at the “roots” of the Roman Forum, in both its visual design and textual key. The perspective of this and the previous view enhances the robustness of the mostly buried building. Even with its few columns surrounded by overgrown vegetation, Piranesi highlights the temple’s solidity, a quality that he admired and used to support his argument for the magnificence of Roman architecture. 

In the key’s lengthy expository text, Piranesi praises “la esquisita delicatezza e disposizione degl’intagli, quanto per la sodezza, e maestà della Fabbrica.” 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 (specifically, 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 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 what Piranesi calls the majesty of the Temple. Piranesi’s use of the adjective “ornato” here is a clear reference to contemporary debates about the role of ornament in architectural design. Prevailing opinion in architectural circles both in Italy and across Europe was that ornament was a distraction from the nobility and soundness of formal design of a building. This opinion was shared, for example, by Piranesi's mentor in architecture Carlo Lodoli (1690-1761). Piranesi expresses his controversial position in one of his most polemical writings, the Letter to Monsieur Mariette (1765): “E come nella natura, così in quest'arte, gli occhi non vedranno una confusione, ma una vaga e dilettevole disposizione di cose. E nel verso se questi e quegli ornamenti, che si usano in Architettura, in se stessi son belli, s'è bella altresì in se stessa Architettura; perché vorrem noi dare all'occhio un sol piacere, qual è quello di fargli mirare la sola Architettura, e non il doppio di fargliela veder rivestita di tali ornamenti, poiché vegiamo esservi la via di far star bene gli uni con l'altra? Using the very same terms in the text of the veduta, Piranesi points to the “disposizione” of the reliefs as an embodiment of 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.

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