The Digital Piranesi


Drawing on the genre of the guidebook, Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma are structured as a visual itinerary through Rome. They communicate spatial orientation, geographic and historical information, as well as the visual impact of modern architecture and urbanism. In the early modern guidebook of Rome, the “city is defined in terms of orderly itineraries, clear boundaries, and physical traversability” where “unobstructed urban movement is taken to be the measure of modernity, but only for pilgrims, tourists, or the fashionable carriage of the upper ranks” (San Juan, 4, 9). Piranesi’s large-scale vedute draw on, but more often exceed, the traditional features of this genre.

Guidebooks were often pocket-sized and organized into days, or giornate. They were originally geared toward pilgrims visiting the city’s main churches, but later embraced a larger market of tourists with varied interests. With brief texts and simplified images of the most ‘essential’ monuments - the Colosseum, Pantheon, St. Peter’s in the Vatican - guidebooks prioritized legibility and accessibility, often presenting an idealized picture of the city, where sites are clearly labeled, streets are clean and orderly, and groups of tourists move freely through the square. 

By contrast, Piranesi’s vision of Rome is immersive. Through their large folio-size, use of exaggerated perspective, and unique combination of word and image, the Vedute di Roma visually transport viewers through the city, bringing them up close to its modern monuments, the grandeur of its ancient ruins, and the drama of city life. Piranesi shows “the diverse, unpredictable, and ephemeral noises of the street,” through Rome’s vivid cast of characters (San Juan 4). In Piranesi’s tour of Rome, viewers are at once distant observers and active participants in the life of the city.

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