This page was created by Michael Andrew Gavin.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

Plate II

After Piranesi’s welcoming in the title page, we find ourselves in the densely packed illustration of Plate II, a completely new addition to Carceri d’Invenzione, published in 1761. Together with plates IV and IX, it is among the few illustrations in which open skies are clearly visible, providing us a chance to decline the descent to Piranesi’s dreary underground.

 If the title page acts as a cover or frontispiece for the book of prisons, presenting the main iconographical features depicted throughout the series, plate II serves as an introduction to the narrative, situating the audience in a particular context. Piranesi provides clear references to specific events in ancient Roman history which, in conjunction with plate XVI, help us to identify, read, and interpret the series. He frames his story into a timeline that encompasses the three political regimes in ancient Rome: Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. After starting with the empire, the last chronological regime, Piranesi goes back seven hundred years in plate XVI. With the portrayal of a bust of Gracchus to the left of the arch at the top of plate II, Piranesi quickly indicates the transition from late Republic to the imperial period. Everything else in plate II alludes to Early Empire: the three busts to the right of the arch, and at the left bottom of the page, the plaques containing names mentioned by Tacitus in Annals, a book on the history of Rome covering the four successors of Augusts, or in other words, the first Roman emperors. These emperors are well known for their extravagances. Indeed, lack of moral principles, excesses of luxury, and vulgar ostentation marked the aristocracy in the end of the ancient Republic and beginning of the empire. It was also a period of intense cultivation of Greek culture in Rome.

Interestingly, many of these same qualities were associated with Baroque at Piranesi’s own time. The artist lived in a period situated between the decline of the Baroque and the emergence of Neoclassicism, in which debates about taste were not only prevalent but carried moral undertones. In that context, the concept of taste incorporated ideals beyond aesthetic choices, conveying especially the faculty of judgement. It was believed that good or bad judgement would reflect on another instances of societies at large, like, for example, in the laws and politics.

In addition, the unprecedent discovery of the classical past, made possible through the many archaeological excavations taking place at that time, prompted comparisons between the legacy of Rome and Greece, creating a schism among intellectuals, artists, and scholars alike. Piranesi defended, with special vigor in the 1760s, that ancient Romans had been far superior to Greeks, and that the aesthetics of Baroque was intrinsically intertwined with the moral excesses of Absolutism. In the Carceri, Piranesi proposes a correlation between the history of ancient and contemporary Rome, inviting his audience to think about the influence of Greek culture once more.

Piranesi considered the cultural scene of contemporary Rome to be as capriciously disoriented as the scene in this plate. The illustration is a critique of the loss of consistency and lucidity in the arts: people, big and small, turn in various directions, appreciate disparate elements, and show all sorts of dissimilar reactions. They are a portrait of the disorder and lack of coherence that Piranesi identified in his own time, when all sorts of theories, aesthetic preferences and styles coexisted in Rome: from late Baroque to a proto-Neoclassicism, from Absolutism to Enlightenment and Republican ideals, from romanophiles to philhellenes. Additionally, Piranesi makes an argument about the moral decadence of Rome after the influence of Greek culture. He praises the magnificence of Rome in the Carceri, especially through engineering and the law, to say that these achievements went unmatched by any other culture, but also, and especially, to say that Rome had reached its apogee before any trace of Greek culture in Rome.

With the outstanding multiplicity of architectural fragments and elements, reliefs, and oddly scaled human figures, Piranesi overwhelms our sight and recreates his own anguish, which is ultimately rooted in the lack of direction that he identified in the patronage system of his own time.

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