This page was created by Alexis Kratzer.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

The Column of Marcus Aurelius

Produced in 1758, the same year as the previous view of Trajan’s column, this ostensibly similar view depicts what is now known as the Column of Marcus Aurelius. The column was modelled on that of Trajan, but this view presents its subject differently. While the previous image of Trajan’s column emphasizes distinctions between the ancient and modern city, this image anchors the ancient column more firmly within its modern setting. Like Trajan’s, the Column of Marcus Aurelius has a carved narrative frieze, which tells the story of the Marcomannic or Danubian Wars. The style of the carving is more striking than that of Trajan’s column, and Piranesi’s etching duplicates its seemingly rough qualities, which in fact include vivid depictions of emotions on the enlarged faces of its human figures. Under the restorations of Pope Sixtus V in 1589, a statue of St. Paul was set atop the observation platform, the base was rectified with contemporary ground level, and an inscription attributing the column to Antoninus Pius was added to the base. (That column is now recognized as lost.) Piranesi’s Trofeo o sia Magnifica Colonna (c. 1774) includes detailed studies of both the column of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, with an image of a man in the entrance to the spiral staircase, a view of its pedestal, and a map of the area. Here, the column is shown with deep gashes into the sculpted frieze that are suggestive of the damage the high relief had suffered by the sixteenth century. The diagonal lines created by the shadow on the column’s base emphasizes its mass, and Piranesi’s dramatic etching brings out the high contrast of the spiral frieze. At odds with these salient visual features, the bustling street life in the Piazza Colonna nearly obscures Piranesi’s numerical annotations. They identify the column’s modern setting by situating it in relation to the Palazzo Chigi, acquired and rebuilt by the family of Alexander VII in 1659, the Piazza itself, and the Strada del Corso (renamed Corso del Popolo in 1946). Like the column’s ancient spiral relief, Piranesi’s identifying captions invite viewers to navigate through street vendors, ornate carriages, and tourists in order to decipher visual details that strain legibility.

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 16 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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