The Pantheon is one of Rome’s most striking and familiar ancient buildings; its “structural daring and proportional harmony” have long assured its universal acclaim (Pinto 72). Giovanni Battista Piranesi made many engravings of the Pantheon (Pantheon d’Agrippa, as he refers to it in his Views of Rome) over the course of his career, but this depiction is unique because of its exaggerated scale. In accordance with his views on Roman magnificence and classical aesthetics, Piranesi here drastically manipulates the size of the Pantheon in order to emphasize the grandeur and supremacy of ancient Roman monuments over what he, in an unpopular theory, considered their inferior Greek predecessors. John Pinto remarks on the scale and size of the building in this image: “It is as if the monument had sucked into its ample rotundity all of the space surrounding it and drawn the puny structures of the modern city close to its corrugated exterior, diminishing them through proximity” (102). Another example of his dramatic scale, the figures that Piranesi depicts on the dome of the Pantheon are almost whimsical in their visual inferiority, standing atop a miniature version of the world, as the dome of the Pantheon represented the heavens. In this image, according to John Wilton-Ely, “mankind is reduced… to the functions of indicating the stepped curve of the Pantheon’s dome or marking the diameter of the hidden oculus against the skyline” (39).” Most obvious after the distortion in scale is the sprawling banner along the bottom of the image and its dense alphabetical key. Some of the notes, found in the key, include historical details about the building, and others discuss the various architectural features and Piranesi’s opinions about their design and execution. The key’s textual density risks making its information indecipherable. While the mere appearance of Piranesi’s annotations might complicate the image, their content includes educated digressions revealing his obsession with the theory of architecture as well as his status as a practiced antiquarian. For example, the letter “O” succinctly details the dimensions of the columns that they indicate: “Solid columns of granite marble from Siena of 6.6 palms in diameter and 63.8 palms in height.” The Pantheon that visitors see today is actually its third incarnation, built between 113 and 125 CE by the emperor Hadrian after the first and second buildings were both destroyed. Elsewhere in the image, Piranesi explains these changes: “Contemporary Portico (AB), Acroterion (CD) and Façade (E), showing their internal structure, as well as the later additions by Agrippa to the rotunda, as may be seen at letters DF, BG, and H, which show the same structure separated from the temple.” With its exaggerated scale and its abundant visual and textual detail, this image vividly embodies characteristic elements of Piranesi’s works.
Pinto, John. Speaking Ruins: Piranesi, Architects and Antiquity in Eighteenth-Century Rome. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Wilton-Ely, John. The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
To see this image in Vedute di Roma, vol 17 of Piranesi's Opere, click here.