The Digital Piranesi

Annotated Views

These speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings, even such as those of the immortal Palladio, could never have succeeded in conveying, though I always kept them before my eyes. 

—Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The individual prints in Piranesi’s Views of Rome (Vedute di Roma) series, begun in 1748, expanded the popular genre of the “view” or “veduta.” Views traditionally offered realistic depictions of architecture or landscape, and they commonly identified, in their keys, particular buildings and monuments. Many of Piranesi’s annotated views, though, suggest an attempt at encyclopedic documentation by including copious amounts of information on a single page. In addition to architectural details, archaeological interventions, and detailed measurements, some of his annotations, especially in his final work devoted to the ancient city of Paestum, also include personal opinion, historical speculation, and first-person narrative. Piranesi said that ruins, more than the drawings of the influential Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), “spoke” to him. In his annotated views, ancient and modern architecture seems to speak, in a different way, to his viewers and readers. The letters and numbers that appear throughout his vivid etchings break the illusion of visual art, and they combine immersive, imposing images with objective information, historical detail, or aesthetic theory. 

These annotated views are also part of Piranesi’s cartographic understanding of Rome. Like maps, they are hybrids of image and text that demand to be both viewed and read. Many are also referenced in his “Plan of Rome and the Campus Martius,” which is included in “Mapping Information.” Others, such as that of the Castello Sant’Angelo shown here, seem to resemble maps themselves: captions that identify numerous buildings can also orient viewers in a specific location, just as a map allows users to position themselves within a city. Finally, the views of Rome that were brought home by tourists as souvenirs could, outside of Rome, guide viewers to imagine or remember their personal itineraries. 

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