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The Digital Piranesi


The Views of Rome is introduced by a title page in the first of the collection’s two bound volumes; this fantastical, inventive frontispiece appears at the beginning of the second. As an introduction to the realistic genre of the “veduta,” this image is, Susan Stewart has said, “incongruous” (191). Will the ostensibly accurate “views” that follow instead offer similar imaginative reconstructions? What, we are invited to ask, is fact, and what is fantasy?  Just as fact and fantasy merge in this image, so, too, do past and present, culture and nature, and even foreground and background: rising clouds of smoke obscure both the physical distance within the image and the conceptual distinctions between its material and thematic concerns (Zorach, 124).

Frontispieces are generally images that face a printed title page. This frontispiece also suggests certain features of the illustrated title page, an art form that flourished in the Renaissance and often included architectural designs and coded symbols. The title pages for collections of prints of ruins offer apt comparisons. For example, title pages published by Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi and Antonio Lafreri for the sixteenth-century collections known as Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae introduce series of ruin prints with triumphal architectural forms. While it is unsurprising for other architectural works such as Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture to be introduced with an architectural image, the motif also opened works on other subjects, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso or the Latin Vulgate, also known as the Clementine Bible. Piranesi’s image is of course quite distinct from those orderly title pages: asymmetrical and stymied, it is unlike the parallel columns that neatly framed the names of title and author, beckoned readers through an open entryway into the following text, and “figured initiation into its intellectual world” (Fowler, 22). The columns in the background of this image, inaccessible behind the accumulated rubble in the foreground, serve to enclose rather than open space. Indeed, the disordered jumble of fragments both real and imagined throughout the image suggests a fundamental challenge to the notion of physical space itself. Manfredo Tafuri has argued that, throughout Piranesi’s oeuvre, this kind of imaginative architectural assembly parallels Michel Foucault’s understanding of heterotopia, which entails the disturbance of the “syntax” that connects not only words in language but also buildings in space (40).

As the following essays will specify, Piranesi’s annotated views frequently suggest relationships between the order of language and the spaces of architecture. His individual views of Rome contain copious references in the form of captions and keys that identify architectural structures and their particular features. This image, though, contains references of a different sort: its imaginative combination of slightly altered iconic monuments prompt viewers—perhaps tourists fresh from the sights themselves—to recall the actual remnants of antiquity and, possibly, Piranesi’s depictions of them in print. Its indirect method of communication is an evolution from the illustrated title pages whose emblems and symbols, Margery Corbett and Ronald Litghtbown argued, aim to find “a middle path between the occult impenetrability of the enigma and the tedious obviousness of the familiar” (34). Knowledgeable viewers of this image’s reinterpretations of familiar Roman monuments would likely identify the statue of Minerva in the center of the image, visible in this view of the Piazza Campidoglio, even though it appears here in reverse and without the Renaissance-era restoration of her raised arm. Also invoked are the Farnese Hercules, which Piranesi’s son Francesco depicted here and the famous foot fragment of the Colossus of Constantine. With their spiraling narrative friezes, the columns resemble those of Trajan or Marcus Aurelius, which are the subject of individual engravings here and here as well as an entire volume that begins here.

While an illustrated title page can include coded references, a frontispiece “shapes the act of reading” by raising expectations about a text’s genre and content (Calè, 29). As such, this image might be viewed as particularly instructive for a viewer who is preparing to turn the pages of the Views of Rome. Often the only visual image in a printed book, a frontispiece lies between image and text, leading a viewer to become, with the turn of a page, a reader. It is not surprising that Piranesi—who was committed to merging image and text—would devote such energies to this genre. This image raises expectations that what follows will be viewed and, possibly only with effort, read, and that that the ancient past is available for imaginative appropriation. A striking image on its own, Piranesi’s “Fantasy of Ruins with a Statue of Minerva” (an alternative title for this image) carries different implications when it is considered as an introduction, or an initiation, to the manipulated realities and word-image composites of the Views of Rome.

The image contains four inscriptions [transcribed and translated in the metadata below] that further instruct a viewer to become the kind of reader who is sensitive to the visual elements of written language. One inscription inspires a scene of reading with special relevance for the images that follow. As in the reworked version of the title page to Piranesi’s Prima Parte, the human figures standing before an inscription amplify, with gestures that seem to point to partially-obscured text, the “deictic power” of the image (Stewart, 171). The obscurity of such an inscription summons our attention, as Richard Wendort has also said of the Prima Parte’s title page, and the two figures before it “force us to follow the vector of their gaze and thus confront the puzzle of the fragmented inscription ourselves” (174). Piranesi’s representations of inscriptions emphasize the act and the effort of reading ancient texts. His graphic methods for representing text also betray a sense of transience and the labor of preservation. The long inscription, on the left side of the image, is an enumeration of Pompey’s extensive conquests and his dedication to Minerva. Taken from Pliny, this statement of military domination appears here on a cracked surface, surrounded by broken architectural remnants; as such, Malcom Campbell has argued that it suggests “the ephemeral nature of human achievements and the impermanence of the monuments raised to celebrate them” (579). Heather Hyde Minor has illuminated that ways that Piranesi manipulated the visual appearance of textual media, rendering letters that were carved into stone as, instead, raised letters resembling type. His foregrounding of textual media—print and inscription, paper and stone—is an apt gloss on his dedication to preserving, on paper, the stone monuments of the past (87, 93).
Perhaps the most significant text in the image, though, is Piranesi’s signature, found in the lower right of the image and shown in the close-up above. Prefatory images in other works that are sometimes referred to as frontispieces are also called “dedicatory images” because these images (in the second and third volumes of his Anitichità Romane and, as noted, the Prima Parte) include his dedications to patrons. This image is unique in this group because Piranesi announces himself as an individual artist rather than the gracious beneficiary of the generosity of an aristocrat or pope (Bevilacqua, 54-5). In an imitation of the ancient inscriptions elsewhere in the image, he emphatically unifies the creativity and labor of his craft: “PIRANESI. INV. INCI.” [Piranesi invenit incidit; Designed and Engraved by Piranesi]. Below this inscription, outside of the plate’s boundary, is another signature: “Piranesi inventò, incise a Roma” [Designed by Piranesi, engraved in Rome]. This repetition across image and margin, Latin and Italian, inscription and manuscript, returns to the boundaries that this image obscures between past and present, fantasy and reality, and culture and nature. With these two signatures, Piranesi seems to suggest that his art, though, is unambiguously part of both the fantastical world the image depicts and the commercial art market that, after all, allows him to announce his independent status as an artist and author. (JB)

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

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