The Digital Piranesi

Imaginary Cartography

You have often asked me to draw and engrave the buildings in that famous part of the city, and to publish a map that captures the entire Campus Martius, crafted to be visible in a single glance. 

—Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi’s maps make tremendous amounts of geographical, architectural, and historical information visible “in a single glance.” However striking they are in one glance, though, his maps warrant careful, sustained attention. The “Ichnographia” from his volume on the Campus Martius region of Rome offers extensive detail: not only buildings and monuments but even individual columns and statues are clearly rendered. The perspective almost produces a three-dimensional effect, as if this printed page is actually carved stone. This precision is, though, deceptive. The “Ichnographia” is in fact a fictional map of ancient Rome, an imaginary projection of his own creation. 
For all their iconoclasm, Piranesi’s maps draw on traditions in printing and cartography that are evidenced in other maps of Rome. The map below is from Cities of the World (Civitates Orbis), a Renaissance atlas by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg. This hand-colored map uses a vantage point that combines a landscape view with a bird’s-eye orientation, and it includes a key that groups and identifies significant monuments.
Next is a map Piranesi knew well. He worked closely with the geographer and cartographer Giambattista Nolli, whose “New Topography of Rome” (“Nuova Topografia di Roma”) is still noted for its accuracy and graphic representation of urban space. Other maps by Piranesi take the informative potential of a map’s key to new extremes.

Maps of Rome such as those by Braun-Hogenberg and Nolli situate ancient monuments in their contemporary urban environment. In Piranesi’s maps, though, the past can dominate the present, and different moments in history can overlap. The illusion of broken fragments, in both Piranesi’s “Ichnographia” and his “Roma” map, below, lends credibility to Piranesi’s cartographic inventions by making them look like pieces of historical evidence. Conventions of cartography for displaying information, such as the numbered key or the compass, suggest a level of accuracy that Piranesi manipulates in order to make arguments about Rome’s history and architecture in ways that are— either in a quick glance or after lengthy study—visually persuasive. 

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