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The Digital Piranesi

View of the Site of the Ancient Roman Forum

In this “View of the Site of the Ancient Roman Forum,” Piranesi ostensibly provides another close-up to complement the two previous views of the famous site. However, the inclusion of “ancient” in the title not only distinguishes it from the other types of views in this volume but also declares the subject of the print: the history of the space. On the rostrum or raised platform on which orators and magistrates gave speeches, indicated by the first annotation, and in the very same place that Cicero “had flung forth his stunning eloquence” (Boswell 60), his severed head and hands were made a public spectacle by his assassins. While viewers observe the modern eighteenth-century forum in the image, Piranesi’s title and key illuminate one of the most gruesome and, he says, memorable episodes of Roman history—the assassination of orator and politician Cicero.

The contemporary use of this space could not be more different. Where there were once, the caption narrates in gory detail, “
i Capi degli uccisi, […] la Veste insanguinata di Cesare, [... è] fatti sanguinosi,” there are, in the eighteenth century, cows peacefully grazing and drinking from a fountain. The rostrum, Piranesi notes, is now used as a “fenile,” a kind of storage facility for grain and bales of hay. The staffage figures in the foreground, including shepherds and tourists, create an almost idyllic atmosphere as they carry on about their daily business, unaware of the area’s fateful past, detailed just below the image’s margin in the key. Zarucchi suggests that this contrast in the different uses of the space is a form of social commentary on Piranesi’s own time, “a critique of the social decay that has surrounded and overwhelmed” a place that once represented a social ideal—where the eloquence of great orators such as Cicero justly represented the tenets of the Roman republic (376-7). This particular anecdote might have also appealed to tourists by adding historical interest to the engraving, especially in a print market flooded with idyllic depictions of the forum. Through the combination of narrative, annotation, and engraving, Piranesi not only allows viewers to see the space represented but also invites readers to learn the history of that space. Whether this view participated in social commentary, a financial strategy, historical observation, or, as is often the case, all three at once, the engraving shows Piranesi’s return to a common theme: his interest in the history of space in terms of use and reuse from ancient to modern times. 

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

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