This page was created by Constance Caddell.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

On the Construction of the Tomb of Cecilia Metella

[T]he Ancients…raised enormous blocks in order to construct Buildings equal to their grand ideas and of everlasting durability...but, they are so massive, and so dense, that they seem to be made more by Nature, than by Art.”

Marveling at the ancient tomb of Cecilia Metella, Piranesi asks himself and his readers: by what means did the Romans build such a monumental structure? How did they achieve such awesome architectural feats a millennia ago, the remains of which continued to define the Roman cityscape just as they do today? In the print, Piranesi recounts how he visited the the ruins of Ancient Rome “every day, examining all of their most minute details” to uncover the mystery of the tomb's construction. Through a combination of archeology, architectural theory, and ancient sources, Piranesi asserts that he will show his readers how the massive stones of the tomb were raised, starting with a most curious element: the holes seen in A and B, a feature “not yet understood by anyone to this day.” Moving through the image by following the letters in each section of the print, the process of construction unfolds, brought to life by Piranesi’s narrative in the text below. 

Piranesi hypothesizes that tools such as those shown in C, D, and X were fitted into the holes, attached to hooks through a rope, and tied to a large pulley (seen at the center and upper right of the image). Various types of tools seem to occupy every section of the print, foregrounding their importance to Piranesi’s ideas. Indeed, historian Peter N. Miller argues that the use of Roman tools was the “central issue” of the print, further stating that “while the tools were inanimate: it was the caption that provided the animation” (2007, Miller, 132). We have sought to animate this process in the video below. 

“If we consult the following print in the series here, Piranesi exhibits the tools as though in a museum case: small and large, in profile and different perspectival views, from ancient times as described by Vitruvius to the Renaissance used by illustrious architect Filippo Brunelleschi, to Piranesi’s own day. Such a visual history demonstrates how the ingenuity of the Romans endured into contemporary architectural practice, supporting Piranesi’s broader arguments about the superiority of Roman architecture over that of the Greeks. 

The serial effect of the multiple prints in addition to the display of details made possible only by the visual medium, persuade readers that Piranesi’s hypothesis is correct. By engaging in this type of referentiality within and across prints, Piranesi forms a “visual argument” (Kusukawa, 3). that seeks to enhance the technical, even empirical, quality of the prints, more akin to an engineering treatise or even a modern instructional manual.  Though viewers might be lured by the technical language of the prints, they are are largely a product of Piranesi’s imagination. Yet, does recapturing the past not always involve a bit of conjecture? Miller convincingly argues that Piranesi uses “his imagination as a tool of the most concrete reconstruction” (Miller, 128). Piranesi’s type of thought experiment gives us a unique view into how an eighteenth-century architect interpreted and recreated the past through incomplete yet everlasting ruins, made not by nature, but by the art of the ancients. (ZL)

To see this image in Antichita Romane, volume 3 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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