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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Site of the Ancient Roman Forum

In the “View of the Ancient Roman Forum,” Piranesi ostensibly provides another close-up view 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. While viewers observe the modern eighteenth-century forum in the image, in his words, Piranesi illuminates one of the most gruesome and “memorable” episodes of Roman history—the assassination of orator and politician Cicero. On the rostrum or raised platform on which orators and magistrates gave speeches (labeled 1 in the key), 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.

The contemporary use of this space could not be more different. Where there were once “decapitated heads,” the “bloodied shirt of Caesar,” and “sanguine deeds,” 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 “in apparent oblivion” of the area’s fateful past (Zarrucchi 376-7). Zarrucchi 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” (377) 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. 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, viewers could not only see the space represented but also learn the history of that space. Whether the view participated in social commentary, a financial strategy, or historical observation (or all three, as is often the case), the engraving shows Piranesi’s return to a common theme: his interest in the history of space in terms of use and re-use 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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