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

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Pantheon

Following this volume’s fantastical frontispiece, this view introduces a group of etchings devoted to the Pantheon by making a bold visual and verbal statement. Piranesi’s intertwining of image and text in this veduta is pervasive: as John Wilton-Ely observes, first of the image, “a wide range of directed lighting and the fullest deployment of etching techniques are directed towards scholarly ends,” and, of the caption, “Piranesi the antiquarian summarizes the building history while Piranesi the artist illustrates the visual results” (1988, 39). There is much to strike a viewer’s eyes—textures rendered vividly through chiaroscuro, bustling street life, and exaggerated proportions. At the same time, in the scroll that breaks the margin of the image and provides support to a gesturing man, there is also a great deal to attract and challenge a reader’s comprehension.
Jonathan Scott noted that captions in the Vedute di Roma allowed tourists to corroborate the information provided by a cicerone and let antiquarians test the accuracy of their memory (29). With annotations that run from A to Y, including an additional 2 and 3 plus an asterisk under the title, this image is one of the most heavily annotated in the Vedute di Roma. As such, it breaks the illusion of visual art and interweaves historical information with aesthetic immersion. The undulating but apparently weighty sides of the banderole seem to insist on the mingling of text and image.

The syntax of its annotations also interweaves visual and verbal experience, material evidence and Piranesi’s own architectural theory. Many of Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma include captions that take the form of lists, such as this earlier view of the Roman Forum. By contrast, this key thoroughly imbeds visual evidence in verbal statement and makes Piranesi’s argument about Agrippa’s construction of the temple and pronaos arise from a viewer-reader’s frequent oscillation between image and text. The style of these annotations urges readers to look away from the caption for the indicated evidence, to return to the caption, and then look again, and again, at the image. This style of annotation is a significant divergence from the more common format of the list, and it edges towards the narrative captions that, as noted in the case of the interior view of the temple, tend to appear when Piranesi makes his most conjectural statements.

Piranesi held the uncommon view that Marcus Agrippa (63 BCE - 12 BCE) oversaw the construction of the Pantheon in its entirety, but in different stages. His other renditions of the Pantheon in this volume make this argument based on measurements and materials. In the Antichità Romane, he uses a different method to make his point. In annotated vedute that are only a fraction of the size of this print, there is simply no space for the lengthy argument that appears instead in the “Indice” to the “Pianta di Roma.” In vedute of the exterior, pronaos, and interior, letters are keyed to the map’s index. There, Piranesi points to these images and refers to passages by Roman historians Pliny (c. 23 CE - 79 CE) and Cassius Dio (c. 155 - c. 235) as he criticizes modern writers who question whether Agrippa actually oversaw the completion of the temple. After the first annotations, which appear in the view of the exterior, are glossed as inscriptions that indicate the construction and renovation of the temple, other annotations in the views of the pronaos and interior call attention to empty niches where lost features—statues of Augustus and Agrippa, a bronze bas-relief—were formerly secured. Seeing those images, which are peppered with large alphabetic pointers, a viewer who might be compelled to decode their annotations would be lost. Seeing the map, a viewer who is willing to become a reader of its index might, perhaps, make the journey from the pages of the index to these views. But as Heather Hyde Minor has observed, it is a journey that “all but the most intrepid and dogged lovers of antiquity would give up on” (2015, 35). In the view above, though, Piranesi lays out a journey between visual evidence and verbal argument that is embedded on one densely-packed multi-media page.
Like many of his animated human figures, Piranesi points viewers in different directions. Along with the man who leans on and perhaps points to the caption (immediately above the phrase “per ciò che dimostra”), gesturing figures atop the dome in the detail above point in tandem with the letters that mark the diameter of the oculus. These figures, with their manual gestures, attest to the pervasive mingling of visual and verbal reference in the immersive and erudite vision of Rome that Piranesi creates. (JB)

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here.

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